In recent weeks, I’ve been approached by a number of people who say they’re angry over recent news from Tallahassee.
I’ve responded with something to the effect of ‘What are you going to do about it?’
On July 8, the Florida Department of Education reported that the Clay County School District had dropped from an “A” to a “B” district and its ranking overall had dropped from 11th to 20th. A number of schools dropped in letter grade and the district’s first charter school went from a “D” to an “F.” (Remember, charter schools are funded by public tax dollars.)
Anger, even in its most perceivably-tame forms, is ugly. It tears up a person inside, harms relationships, creates division and – even if some form of reconciliation occurs – trust is damaged, sometimes permanently.
My first encounter with Charlie Van Zant Jr. was one of anger and division. Yet, it was also one of ‘I am going to win at all costs.’
It was the August 21, 2012 meeting of the Clay County School Board, just one week after defeating incumbent School Superintendent Ben Wortham by a mere 1,590 votes. After fielding calls, emails and requests from voters who felt cheated due to the closed primary caused by the sham write-in candidate, Fred Gottshalk, board member Janice Kerekes had launched a discussion seeking to place a measure on the November 2012 general election ballot to allow voters to decide whether to move from an elected to an appointed superintendent model in Clay County.
“If you try to make this kind of decision in the next 15 or 20 minutes, you will make a mistake and there will be litigation when the sun comes up. This is absolutely an illegal action by the board,” Van Zant said in a high-decibel tone of contention.
Little did I know that that display of anger and unstatesmanlike behavior would carry on for the next four years. ‘If I don’t get my way, I’ll simply threaten you,’ or worse – completely retaliate.
For the tangential Clay County School Board follower, it’s way too easy to think that the culpability of contention sits solely in the laps of the board, when the reality is, it’s this superintendent who has set the divisive tone from the outset. His us versus them behavior has been evident even before he took the oath of office.
The following month’s meeting on September 20, 2012 – again before being officially sworn in to office – Van Zant made a motion to fire – basically retaliate – against Bruce Bickner, the school board attorney. You see Van Zant disagreed with Bickner’s handling and opinions given regarding the contrived now-infamous prayer-at-the-flagpole PR stunt that catapulted Van Zant into office.
He continued to set the tone of division. Divide and conquer.
And the contentious behavior kept coming the further he got into his administration.
On April 15, 2013, the school district’s public information officer issued a news release on behalf of Van Zant stating that Van Zant was going to hire Jacksonville attorney Michael Korn to file a lawsuit against the school board. The suit asked the courts to issue a ruling on whether or not the school board is authorized to write job descriptions or whether that task was only to be conducted by the school superintendent.
The suit was again a retaliation for not having his way at the March 2013 school board meeting in which the board voted to tighten up language in school board policy regarding the job description for the district’s director of career and technical education.
After about two months, and untold thousands of dollars in legal fees, the suit ended with an agreement that neither the board or Van Zant were to make mention of the legal action again.
The atmosphere had gotten so bad that the Clay County Chamber of Commerce spent money on a poll asking residents and business leaders their opinions regarding the issue. In short, the Chamber said to both entities, “Simmer down now!” They feared the malaise would have long-term negative impact on economic development. Perhaps it still does.
Again, in 2014, there was another lawsuit, this time involving the school board suing the board of county commissioners after the BCC refused to let voters decide whether they wanted an elected or appointed superintendent. When all was said and done, the courts found the BCC at fault and the voters eventually rejected the appointed, or hired, superintendent concept.
Fast forward to January 2016, where parents in the Oakleaf Plantation area spoke out in droves against a Van Zant proposal to rezone elementary school boundaries. That was an instance in which anger – quite possibly fear also – created a positive result for the children of Clay County. It usually doesn’t result in good stuff for kids when the adults – the ones supposedly running the place – lash out in anger.
In the bigger picture, there are numerous outbursts and incidents in which Van Zant blasts the board – or the press – at meetings. However, it wasn’t until the June board meeting when he lashed out in anger after a high school student questioned – for the second month in a row – his stance on allowing transgender students safe and appropriate bathroom access.
Clay County voters have a decision to make Aug. 30. Any angry stewing around out there can be turned into a positive thing. Whether you sit on the side of improving economic development or simply want to do better than a No. 20 school district, voters have the power to enact change.