NEWS

Shaky Start for Schools Chief

Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. has become a polarizing figure in Clay County

Charlie Van Zant Jr. became Clay County School District's superintendent of schools in November.
Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union
Charlie Van Zant Jr. became Clay County School District's superintendent of schools in November.
Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union
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In his first six months of office, Charlie Van Zant Jr. has been a lightning rod as Clay County's 17th superintendent of schools.

He has tangled with the School Board, called members names and, briefly, sued it. He has drawn criticism from the teachers' union and earned a rebuke from the Chamber of Commerce.

In short, Van Zant is the same polarizing figure he was during his 14 years on the School Board, where he skirmished with other Board members, its attorney and the district's administration.

While his actions are legal, here are some of the criticisms of Van Zant, who has been in office since November:

• Facing only a write-in candidate during November's general election, Van Zant solicited up to $500 in donations from some 200 school administrators.

• Van Zant sued the School Board after it changed the requirements for a job the school system was advertising. Van Zant and the Board settled the lawsuit May 9 after agreeing to keep the terms of the settlement secret. It cost the county $24,250 in legal fees.

• The School Board turned down Van Zant's request to spend $10,000 for a lobbyist for the 2013 legislative session.

• Van Zant accused School Board Chairman Carol Studdard and member Janice Kerekes of meddling after Kerekes revealed that Van Zant had banned the board's attorney, Bruce Bickner, from district staff meetings. As a Board member, Van Zant tried to fire Bickner.

• Studdard said any questions the Board has for employees must go through administrators as a result of a Van Zant policy. She said that makes her feel like the "Gestapo," because she fears getting an employee in trouble for answering a question. "I feel like Big Brother is watching me. There is no respect at all."

• In March, Van Zant spent $5,000 in school funds to hire a consultant to improve district communications, but he didn't talk to the School Board about it.

• The Clay County Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Van Zant and the School Board, saying their war of words was hurting the county's business climate.

Some love Van Zant, and others loathe his actions in the top leadership post of the 35,295-student district, which is ranked No. 7 in the state by the Florida Department of Education.

School Board member Johnna McKinnon, in her first term on the board, said she would rate Van Zant's performance as an "A."

"This board member is fully supportive 
of his vision for our district, and I am 
fully committed to working with him while holding him accountable to move our school system forward in a manner than enriches the lives of our students, teachers and community as a whole," she wrote in an email.

The Rev. Ron Baker, pastor of Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs — who was at the center of a controversy about praying at the flagpoles at several Clay County schools — also thinks Van Zant is doing a good job.

"A couple of the School Board members have an attitude of anti-anything Charlie wants to get done. The anti-Charlie voices seem to rule," he said, referring the often 3-2 split on the board.

"Van Zant is doing a good job. There is a learning curve with everything," Baker said. "I think he will continue to do better as he matures in that position."

Others are not as complimentary.

"I believe Mr. Van Zant has done everything possible to upset the apple cart of our school district," said Steve Richards, president of the Clay County Education Association, the teachers' union representing most of the district's 2,800 teachers.

"We have seen no leadership from him and very little flexibility in listening to any other opinion than his own," Richards said.

Studdard, the School Board chairperson, said she hopes for more cooperation in 
the future.

"We've had a bumpy road," said Studdard, noting that in her 20 years on the Board and working with four different superintendents, she had not seen such discord.

"This is embarrassing, all this infighting. We need to come together as a team with the same common goal for the good of the school system," she said. "It is unfortunate we have gone through these rough spots. As adults, we should be able to sit down and work together."

The Rev. Harry Parrott, a retired American Baptist minister who attends most of the School Board meetings, says he sees a bigger picture.

"The elephant in the room that nobody is talking about is the takeover by the religious right of the School Board," said Parrott, who lives in Penney Farms.

Van Zant and his family are members of Trinity Baptist Church.

Parrott started the Clay County chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and was active in fighting Rev. Baker's actions of having before-class prayers around the flagpoles on several school campuses.

Baker said the plan approved by the School Board to make the gatherings earlier and move them to the edge of campus or on adjoining property has been a good thing, because the gatherings are more visible from the road.

Van Zant was on the School Board at the time and supported Baker's plan to hold prayer meetings outside several schools' flagpoles. When the Board's attorney issued an opinion that he believed it was unconstitutional, Van Zant tried to have him fired.

"Attendance has tripled and skyrocketed," Baker said. "They did not mean for us to prosper. I doubt they meant for us to flourish, but we growing by leaps and bounds."

Van Zant was elected last fall, and his most serious challenge was in the Republican primary, where he defeated incumbent Ben Wortham by a vote of 465 to 156. A total of 621 people decided the primary.

Van Zant was criticized because of a "sham" candidate, running as a write-in Independent for the general election, prevented some 58,000 registered Democrats and Independents from voting in the closed Republican primary.

Fred S. Gottshalk, who identifies himself as a Tea Party member on his website, introduced himself at a School Board meeting last September as a "sham candidate." Gottshalk gave Van Zant a $50 campaign contribution and placed Van Zant's campaign signs in his yard. Gottshalk did not reply to an email from Folio Weekly seeking comment.

Between the primary and the general election, Board member Janice Kerekes called for a vote changing the Clay County School District's superintendent from being an elected official to an appointed one.

"The recent election was conducted in a manner which subverted the true will of the people by use of a sham candidate to disenfranchise the electorates," Kerekes said in a school system-produced video. "This is imperative that we have an appointed superintendent and not an elected one."

Van Zant responded: "It's unfortunate that this underhanded political stunt was pulled. We need to just move past that."

The Board learned it was too late to get it on the November ballot, and Studdard said recently it was not under consideration.

After winning the primary, Van Zant sent a letter to 200 district personnel seeking campaign contributions for his general election bid. Van Zant raised $74,025, but it wasn't clear how much of that came from district employees.

"Although the write-in candidate has not campaigned vigorously, I'm not taking anything for granted in this race," he wrote in the letter, seeking contributions of up to $500 a person.

Van Zant then won the general election, collecting 74,719 votes against the write-in candidate, Gottshalk, who tallied at
7,049 votes.

Wortham, who collected $75,717 in 
his re-election bid, declined to comment on the election or Van Zant's actions since he took office.

Board members Kerekes, Tina Bullock and Lisa Graham did not respond to emails inviting comment on Van Zant's first six months in office. Van Zant did not respond to a request for comment made to the District's spokesperson Darlene Mahla.

Another item that caused controversy has apparently been resolved. Van Zant was criticized for receiving an automatic $29,000 pay supplement, without it going through the Board. He told the Board he supported changing that policy. The new policy will require the Board to award the supplement before putting it in the budget. Van Zant's supplement will end June 30, after he's received $17,760. It will be up to the Board to decide if he receives the extra pay in the future.

Van Zant, a major in the Army National Guard, touts himself as a war hero, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, in a biography released by his office.

"For his courage, bravery and leadership, he has received numerous awards and honors," his biography said. He lists the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, with Oak Leaf Cluster, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal and Global War on Terror Service and Achievement medals.

Van Zant joined the Florida National Guard in 1989 as a UH-60 helicopter crew chief. He was later commissioned as an officer through the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Ga.

Van Zant attempted to remain serving on the School Board while deployed overseas with the National Guard, attending meetings by phone. When that method was questioned, he convinced Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 to name his father, Charles Van Zant Sr., and his wife, Stephanie, in 2010 to fill in as temporary School Board members when he was deployed.

The elder Van Zant has been a conservative member of the Florida House since 2008. He pushed a bill in the last session requiring doctors to sign an affidavit stating they have no knowledge of whether a woman is seeking an abortion based on their unborn child's sex or race. Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, accused Planned Parenthood and other "abortionists" of "targeting black women." It passed the House but died in a Senate committee. Van Zant has also given $73,078 in leftover campaign money to fund the church he founded, Gospel Lighthouse International in Gainesville.

According to the University of Florida, Van Zant graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science in 1993. He began his career as a teacher at Wilkinson Junior High School in Middleburg. 

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