BROOKSVILLE — Sandra Nicholson has always touted her status as an outsider.
It's only natural that people with careers in education wind up on the School Board, she says. But Nicholson, who is seeking her fifth term in the District 5 seat, said her background as an office manager for an engineering firm complements a board loaded with former educators.
"While I appreciate their views, for balance on the board you need at least one nonteacher's perspective," she said.
A teacher and a former educator are gunning for Nicholson's seat — and they both criticize her as out of touch with what's going on in schools.
Cynthia Moore has more than four decades' experience in Hernando County schools as a teacher, summer school principal and volunteer.
Mike Bainum, a former restaurant manager who now teaches culinary arts at Hernando High, said he has both education and business acumen.
If no candidate takes a majority, the two with the most votes go to the November ballot. The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association issued a dual endorsement: Go with either of the two new faces.
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Nicholson has seen controversy over the last 16 years, but one of the biggest struggles is also one of the most recent: the decision to oust then-superintendent Wayne Alexander.
Nicholson was among Alexander's staunchest defenders, but by this time last year, she agreed that his search for a job in New England to rejoin his family had become a distraction. Alexander left in September.
"He did what we hired him to do," she said. "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 following year, she supported a failed move to use federal grant money to start a drug-testing program for student athletes.
Last year, she joined fellow member Dianne Bonfield in the losing side of a vote on 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 students should be tested later because that's when talent and aptitude truly begin to show.
Nicholson said she has helped the district save significantly by pushing years ago for direct, tax-free purchase of building materials, rather than reimbursing contractors who have to pay sales tax.
She also backed the shift in school times this year to cut busing costs and opposed the additional quarter-mill property tax levy the past two years, joining the rest of her colleagues in approving a ballot measure that will have voters decide in November whether to give the district the ability to increase the rate in the next two budget years.
Nicholson was on the board when Nature Coast Tech opened and says the district needs to increase its vocational offerings. She touts her efforts to keep abreast of state issues through the Florida School Board Association and says she gets a teacher's perspective from her son, who teaches art at Hernando High.
She calls herself an active board member and a parents' advocate.
"You have to be people-friendly. It helps if you're willing to listen and make a rational decision based on the information you have at the time."
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Nicholson has had her time, Moore says.
"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.
Moore, who retired from the school district in 2004, says her long history in the district makes her the best choice to negotiate difficult 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."
Moore said she might have supported the quarter-mill levy when the budget deficit was estimated at nearly $6 million. The former teachers union president vows to stand up to the union if it's best for students.
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.
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 — transporting students who live within 2 miles of their campus — on a school-by-school basis if there are not overriding safety concerns.
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 now at Challenger K-8 in Spring Hill — there at least should be one on each side of the county.
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In college, Bainum thought he would become a teacher. But he got a job as a manager for Walgreens Corp. and then "fell into the restaurant business." He promised himself he wouldn't still be doing food inventory in walk-in freezers at age 40, and landed the job at Hernando High six years ago.
He loves it.
Bainum said his time in the business world and in the classroom — plus being a parent of one child who graduated from the district and another child in high school here — make for a powerful combination.
"I'm the well-rounded candidate," he said, adding that he would bring a fresh perspective and more energy to the job than Nicholson.
"I don't think she's engaged. You have to be more communicative to parents, to teachers, to administrators, to taxpayers."
He vows to spend one week in each school over the next four years — not as a pesky School Board member trying to micromanage, he says, but as a "helper," working bus and lunch duty and attending faculty and school advisory committee meetings.
Bainum criticized the current board for its tendency to put off tough decisions, citing the recent move to change school times, a measure he would have supported. "I understood the safety issue, but let's talk it out in a week instead of dragging it out for a month," he said.
The board erred by giving its blessing to the County Commission last year to cut impact fees, he said. And he would have supported the quarter-mill levy, a move he favors over charging activity fees.
Nature Coast Technical serves a purpose, but the district should set a long-term goal of establishing a true vocational center, he said. A lack of partnerships with local businesses means missed opportunities, he said. "You've got a lot of businesspeople who want to be involved."
Bainum, who must resign his teaching job if elected, said he likely would serve just one term but would not rule out running for a second.
A native of Kansas, Bainum, 48, worked as a manager for Walgreens for three years and then as a general manager for Darden Restaurants Inc. from 1988 to 2003. He has been the culinary arts teacher at Hernando High School for the past six years. Bainum has a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida. He is married with two children.
Moore, 68, was born in Mississippi and has more than four decades of experience in the Hernando school district as a teacher, summer school principal and now a volunteer. Moore also served as president of the local teachers union. She has a bachelor's degree from Mississippi State College for Women and a master's degree in education from the Mississippi University for Women.
Nicholson, 62, is a native of Michigan. She worked as an office manager for Nicholson Engineering in Brooksville from 1991 to 2006. She was elected to the Hernando School Board in 1994. Nicholson is president of the Hernando County Fair, a volunteer position. A high school graduate, she took some business college courses. She is single with one son.