Four-time board member Sandra Nichols has advice for educator candidates

Nichols served three terms on the board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District while she was a teacher in neighboring Santa Cruz. She moved out of the Pajaro district in 2012 and into Santa Cruz County, where she ran for the County Board of Education in her fourth winning election bid.

In all the elections, Nichols faced opposition. Her opponent in the most recent race was a retired administrator who received less than 20 percent of the vote, while Nichols garnered an 80 percent landslide. Her fellow trustees selected her as board president in December.

Nichols says teachers bring an articulate intelligence to politics “that should influence the political climate in the United States.” And she has a piece of advice for aspiring candidates: Get a mentor who knows the ropes and can advise you at each new step in a campaign.

Surprisingly, Nichols and her husband Peter, also a retired teacher, actually like campaigning. “It’s good exercise — mental and physical,” she enthuses. But Nichols confessed that fundraising is very difficult for her.

Unions have been very generous, she said, and the endorsement of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council opened doors to local unions that contributed campaign funds and volunteers. In the county board election, Nichols was endorsed by two members of the assembly, a state senator, local elected officials, the CFT and locals including the Greater Santa Cruz Federation, the Pajaro Valley Federation, and the Santa Cruz Council of Classified Employees.

“…teachers bring an articulate intelligence to politics that should influence the political climate in the United States.”

Even winning has demands. She boasts that she has missed only two meetings in her 14 years on two school boards, flashing the smile that may be her most effective campaign tool.

But the smile quickly fades when she lists the problems that face California’s schools. Topping the list is Prop. 13, which strangles property tax assessments in the state, forcing students into overcrowded classrooms, often with inadequate facilities, she said. Her solution would be to remove Prop. 13’s protections for corporations, which now pay 28 percent of property taxes, but keep it for homeowners, who shoulder 72 percent of the tax burden.

While serving on the Pajaro board during successive rounds of funding cuts, Nichols sided with the Pajaro Valley Federation and union president Francisco Rodriquez in trying to protect small class sizes and reduce administrative costs instead of decreasing programs and services.

“Francisco and I had the same point of view: Teachers are the crucial link in every student’s career. I say protect the teachers.”

Nichols has also been a persistent critic of the annual high-stakes testing required under NCLB and especially the “shaming of teachers” by the public release of test results. As a prolific writer of op-ed pieces on education policy, she makes her opinions known. Their flavor is reflected in titles such as “Low pay, lack of respect and NCLB create crisis in morale” and “Another education reform gimmick on the way!”

One of her earliest causes was fighting an NCLB mandate. She proposed that parents could opt out of the automatic sharing of their child’s information with military recruiters, and won by a 5-2 vote with one of the two no-vote board members threatening to resign.

Nichols worked for most of her 31-year career as a speech and language specialist, much of it on a bilingual assessment team. She first ran for office 14 years ago in reaction to passage of Proposition 227, the statewide ballot measure that placed restrictions on bilingual education. The Pajaro district, where she served three board terms, is more than 80 percent Latino and many students have limited English proficiency.

Nichols was the trustee who pushed the district to begin awarding a Seal of Biliteracy on the high school diplomas of students proficient in two languages. Pajaro teachers went on to work with CFT to pass a law that awards the certificates to students statewide.

The most valuable aspect of holding elected office, Nichols says, has been opening the doors of legislative offices in Sacramento. “It gets you in,” she said. “They know you convinced people to vote for you so it becomes a ticket to talk to powerful people.”

—By Malcolm Terence, CFT Reporter

>>Read articles and essays by Sandra Nichols on her blog Education Matters.