BROOKSVILLE — The year is 1993, and Sandra Nicholson has her sights set on a Hernando School Board seat.
Nicholson, then 45 and a school volunteer, said the board was generally doing a good job. But when the incumbent in the District 5 seat announced she would not run for re-election, Nicholson jumped in.
Nicholson ran as a Republican at a time when the School Board races were still partisan. A part-time office manager at her then-husband's Brooksville engineering firm, Nicholson said she wanted to get more parents and volunteers involved, tamp down school violence, increase teacher salaries, and ensure the board had a better understanding of construction projects and change orders.
Nicholson won the primary, beating a substitute teacher, and then the general election, defeating a retired educator.
Sixteen years, five superintendents and three successful re-election bids later, Nicholson says the district has achieved — or is making significant progress toward — the goals she set during her first campaign.
"I think we've done well," she said.
Now she faces a challenge from another retired educator, Cynthia Moore, in the Nov. 2 general election. Nicholson and Moore were the top two vote-getters in the August primary election and thus were set for a runoff.
Moore, 68, started as a teacher in the district in 1964. Moore said she respects Nicholson's experience but said she has plenty of firsthand knowledge, too.
"Yes, (board) experience does count, but I still think she lacks an understanding of a lot of things about children, and a lot of things parents believe in," Moore said. "I have a knowledge base of what students really need. I have a better understanding of what parents expect."
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A native of Michigan, Nicholson grew up in Crawford County, Ohio, south of Toledo. Her stepfather worked on a farm and in a rubber factory; her mother helped establish and run a school for the mentally disabled. Nicholson's only sibling, a half-sister, attended the school.
Nicholson finished a six-month business program at Stautzenberger College in Toledo and did office work for several companies over the years. She married Nicholas Nicholson in 1968 and the couple and their two sons, Scott and Michael, moved to Brooksville from South Carolina in 1988.
Nicholson got involved with the schools right away, serving on the district's discipline task force and as vice president of the county's school advisory board. She also volunteered at Parrott Middle School and at Hernando High School, where Michael was a student. He is now an art teacher there.
Nicholson worked for 15 years as office manager at the family business, Nicholson Engineering Associates Inc. in Brooksville. She left in 2006 and the couple divorced in 2008.
Now 62, Nicholson is president of the Hernando County Fair Board, a volunteer position. The School Board post, which pays $32,912, is her only job.
Nicholson has seen controversy during her tenure, but one of the biggest struggles is also one of the most recent: the decision to oust then-superintendent Wayne Alexander. She was among Alexander's staunchest defenders, but by the summer 2009 she agreed that his search for a job in New England to rejoin his family had become a distraction. Alexander left that September.
"He did what we hired him to do," Nicholson told the Times recently. "He may have come in like a bull in a china shop, and obviously that was not the way things should have been changed, but changes needed to be made and those were the instructions he was given when he was hired."
In 2006, Nicholson led an unsuccessful move to keep 10 books she considered profane out of the Nature Coast Technical High library. The next year, she supported a failed attempt to use federal grant money to start a drug-testing program for student athletes.
Last year, she joined fellow member Dianne Bonfield in opposing a settlement agreement with two ineligible Nature Coast Tech students who filed a lawsuit to remain there.
Nicholson has been an outspoken critic of the magnet screening policy. She contends that the fine arts, science and mathematics programs should start in later grades because that is when students truly begin to show talent and aptitude.
Nicholson says she has helped the district save significantly by pushing years ago for direct, tax-free purchases of building materials, rather than reimbursing contractors who have to pay sales tax. She also says she is proud of the role she had shortly after her first election in bringing more accountability to the facilities department, which oversees school construction.
"When I first got on the board, it was change order after change order," she said.
Nicholson has backed the shift in school times this year to cut busing costs, and she opposed levying an optional quarter-mill property tax the past two years. She joined the rest of her colleagues in approving a ballot measure that will have voters decide on Nov. 2 whether to give the district the ability to increase the rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value in the next two budget years.
Faced with a grim budget forecast for next year, Nicholson said she would not shy away from making tough decisions. Among the strategies she says she would consider are freezing or cutting salaries, furloughs for some employees, instituting fees for programs, and paring down or eliminating so-called courtesy bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school.
A victory for Nicholson would mean a sweep for the three incumbents this year as John Sweeney and Dianne Bonfield won their respective races in August. Nicholson says her business acumen is a good complement to her colleagues' experience as former educators.
"There are so many things that go on with the School Board and the whole district that most people don't know about," she said.
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The board needs a new viewpoint, Moore says, arguing that her long history in the district makes her the best choice to negotiate difficult financial times ahead.
"I have the knowledge, the experience to help get the School Board through the situation," she said. "I also have good rapport with a lot of staff in the schools, and they feel very comfortable talking to me."
Born in Itta Bena, Miss., and raised there and in nearby parts of the Delta, Moore says she realized at a young age she wanted to be a teacher. Her father worked as a hardware salesman and her mother was a registered nurse.
Moore, who never married, got her first job in 1964 teaching second grade at now-closed Brooksville Primary School. She also worked at the former Mitchell Black Elementary, and for the last 20 years taught at Spring Hill Elementary, also serving as summer school principal for three years.
Moore now volunteers as many as 40 hours a week as a receptionist at Brooksville Elementary. She also is a board member of Enrichment Centers Inc. of Hernando County.
She proposes to close the district for two weeks in July to save money. She would like to see the district revive its printing department and strike deals to provide printing service with Brooksville and Hernando County. And she says the district needs to do more cooperative buying with those two governments.
Moore said she might have supported the quarter-mill levy back when the budget deficit was estimated at nearly $6 million. Though the district is struggling to meet elementary school capacity rules, Moore said the board should postpone the opening of the new K-8 school under construction in Weeki Wachee.
She said she might consider a plan that would limit courtesy busing on a school-by-school basis if there are not overriding safety concerns. A former president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, Moore vows to stand up to the union if it's best for the district. She said she would consider such strategies as furloughs and student activity fees as last resorts.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt continues to lament the need for more staff in the district office, but Moore has another viewpoint. "There are lots of things I consider not necessary in the county office," she said.
When asked for specifics, she said the math curriculum department is one place to start looking for savings.
Magnet programs should be maintained as they are, but new schools built in the future should be neighborhood schools, she said. Ideally, she said, there would be gifted programs at every school, but since the district has committed for now to a center approach — the Quest Academy for the Gifted located at Challenger K-8 in Spring Hill — there should also be one on the east side of the county, she said.
"(East side) residents have to ride too far on the buses to get over there," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.