Aug. 11--Clay County schools Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. isn't up for re-election this year although his presence -- albeit unofficial -- could be a factor in the upcoming School Board elections where eight candidates vie for three seats.
The Aug. 26 primary appears split between supporters and detractors of Van Zant as well as those of the three board members -- Janice Kerekes, Tina Bullock and Chairwoman Carol Studdard -- who are his harshest critics on the panel.
That raises the question whether the election is essentially a referendum on Van Zant or the board members.
While Van Zant and some candidates deny that, others say that is exactly what is happening with this election.
Kerekes in District 1 and Bullock in District 3 are seeking re-election and each have challengers. Studdard was re-elected in 2012 in the same election where county residents voted in Van Zant as superintendent.
Often voting together, Studdard, Kerekes and Bullock compose the majority of the five-member board and they've implemented a series of policy and procedure changes to limit what Van Zant can do without prior board approval.
The third board seat is District 5, now held by Lisa Graham, who generally has sided with Van Zant on school system issues. She is retiring from the board this year, and her son is among three candidates looking to replace her.
PERSONALITIES AT ISSUE
Until now, bitter feuding between Van Zant and the three board members played out mainly during the panel's meetings, and in part by their constituencies on social media.
"The issues are the cast of players at hand," said John Bowles, former longtime Orange Park town manager and past Clay County manager. "Both sides seem to be polarized and entrenched with their ideas, thoughts and philosophies. But I've never seen this much interest for School Board seats and School Board race."
Clay superintendents historically favored some candidates, but it's unusual to openly fight people while supporting others, another observer said.
Van Zant bristled when the Times-Union asked him whether he is helping some candidates and noted Studdard is among those aiding Kerekes, Bullock and District 5 candidate Sandra Dunnavant. The issue stems from the cancellation of June 19 disciplinary hearings for eight students, which if not rescheduled, would have occurred at the same time Van Zant helped host a fundraiser for candidate Betsy Condon and Kenny Leigh.
Condon seeks to oust Bullock. Leigh and another candidate, Amber Harmony Shepherd, are trying to unseat Kerekes. A May 29 email, which identifies Van Zant as the sender, suggests potential wording for invitations to the campaign event.
Administrators gave three reasons to the board for postponing the disciplinary hearings. However, Bullock said the real reason was the fundraiser. She said Van Zant said at a board insurance workshop that the hearings needed to be delayed because of some stragglers. That was days before administrators emailed the board about canceling the hearings.
"I have no problem with him saying these are the people I'm supporting. That's fine. That's his right. But when our district suffers because of it, then I have a problem with it," said Bullock, noting stragglers weren't mentioned in the email.
In an email Tuesday to the Times-Union, Van Zant said he hasn't made any public endorsement of candidates.
"It's no secret, that I would like to have a school board leadership team that focuses on students. And it's no secret that I feel like a couple members of our current board don't," he said Wednesday. "But I have to run a big school system and work with whoever shows up. So that's really all I am willing to say about that."
Van Zant also said in his position as superintendent he's publicly said nothing about the candidates. Privately, when people who are friends and family ask him, he shares his thoughts with them.
Assistant Superintendent Diane Kornegay said she was responsible for canceling the disciplinary hearings. The hearings were rescheduled, Kornegay said, because of a logistical conflict with summer leadership training for administrators. Because school was out for the summer the delay didn't adversely affect the students, she said.
Kornegay contributed $200 to Condon's campaign, records show. The contribution, Kornegay said, is unrelated to her job and irrelevant to the hearings' cancellation.
Condon in an email to the Times-Union, said she couldn't talk because she had laryngitis and was going out of town for a family event. She referred questions to her campaign consultant, Matt Justice, who couldn't be reached for comment.
Leigh told the Times-Union he didn't know whether Van Zant rescheduled the disciplinary hearings, or any other school district business on behalf of his campaign. He hasn't asked for Van Zant's help, and said he's unaware if any might have been offered.
"No, I am not his handpicked candidate," Leigh said.
The other candidates: Shepherd in District 1, Dunnavant, Ashley Gilhousen and Brian Graham in District 5, all said they haven't received any direct or indirect support from Van Zant. Neither have Bullock, Dunnavant or Kerekes.
However, Bullock, Kerekes and Dunnavant's campaign contributions include donations from Studdard as well as former Superintendent Ben Wortham, whom Van Zant defeated in 2012. Those contributing to either some or all of Kerekes', Bullock's and Dunnavant's opponents include state Rep. Charles Van Zant Sr., the superintendent's father, as well as board members Johnna McKinnon and Lisa Graham, records show.
The election, Van Zant said, is a referendum but not about him.
"I think this is a referendum, if anything, on what Clay County wants our School Board to look like and that is entirely up to the voters," he said.
Describing the campaign as nasty, Leigh said he thinks the election "is more for or against civility, rather than a referendum on Van Zant."
"I think right now people aren't happy with the board or the superintendent. My research has revealed that, [and] I believe it's the board's fault. I think they [people] are sick of the fighting," Leigh said. "If Charlie Van Zant was running right now, he'd be losing. I think most incumbents are losing because of the ugliness."
Shepherd said any time there is a school election cycle it will affect the superintendent and his ability to perform. She doesn't relate this election to Van Zant. She sees it more as "the candidates are either in support of the way the board is currently acting or they are in opposition of the majority of the [board] votes."
Gilhousen said she hopes the election isn't based on Van Zant. It's important, she said, to focus on the students, not the conflict between the board and superintendent.
Graham said he doesn't think the election is about Van Zant, nor should it be.
"People running to either help or hurt the superintendent is not the reason people should run for public office. They should run for public office to improve the education of Clay County ...," he said.
However, Kerekes and Bullock said Van Zant is a major part of the election.
"The fact is, he's got his candidates and he's working behind the scenes. ... He has polarized our community and politicized our schools," said Kerekes, citing the June campaign event as an example.
Dunnavant is trusting in county voters -- describing them as smart and savvy enough to understand the significance of the board elections. "I believe when they look at all the School Board races, they will be able to sift through all the information and realize what an important race this is," she said.
District employees, for the most part, are trying to keep their heads down, according to several who didn't want their names published.
Teachers are terrified to speak out if they disagree with the superintendent, said Renna Lee Paiva, a teacher and president of the Clay County Education Association, which is supporting Bullock, Dunnavant and Kerekes.
"That is what the problem is when it's political. ... It's now this big huge political football and it's not about the kids," Paiva said. "It's only when politics gets involved that it all gets muddy. And it's pretty muddy right now in Clay County."
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075
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