It was a day of solidarity and unity and it sent a huge message to those in elected office in 2016.
Hundreds of Clay County teachers crammed into the Teacher Training Center at Fleming Island High to attend a quasi-judicial hearing the school board was holding after an administrative law judge recommended the district end its impasse over the teacher’s union contract negotiations.
Months of stressful and boisterous school board meetings forced members of the Clay County Education Association union to search for a creative way to voice their opposition to the board’s actions and debate during the “hearing.”
When contentious subjects arose in the board’s discussion, an unforgettable sound of fluttering filled the room as if a swarm of doves was taking flight from Trafalgar Square. Clad in red union golf shirts, teachers bonded together and held up simple white sheets of 8-and-a-half by 11-inch paper baring the words “We Will Vote You Out in August” printed in black. No spoken words or jeering, just a unified message without a threat or boos or other disdainful speech.
The 9 a.m. hearing was held at such an inconvenient time that teachers were forced to use personal days off to attend and take part in the decision-making process.
Board member Janice Kerekes started the meeting by asking then-chairman Johnna McKinnon if she could have a point of order to voice her objection for holding the meeting at what was viewed an inconvenient time. Her objection was met with claps and vocal cheers from the approximately 300 attendees.
“Your objection is noted,” McKinnon responded.
Kerekes went on to offer a motion that the entire meeting and its agenda be tabled and re-scheduled for a time that was more convenient for teachers and other “stakeholders” to be able to attend. Board member Carol Studdard seconded Kerekes’ motion, which was voted down 3-2, with McKinnon and board members Betsy Condon and Ashley Gilhousen joining her.
Kerekes then went on to make a motion to lift any time limits for those who wished to speak at the hearing despite at the outset of the meeting, McKinnon stating that citizen comments were going to be limited to 30 minutes total before the board would discuss the merits of the administrative law judge’s recommendations about collective bargaining.
Kerekes’ request was met again with applause and overt joy.
When that motion was also killed on a 3-2 vote by the same board players, Studdard asked why Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. was sitting at the dais with the board.
Then, Tracy Butler, who represented the CCEA at the time, took to the audience podium to say how she believed Van Zant was sitting at the dais “as an intimidation factor.”
The tension was obvious from the beginning. The hearing would go on to last more than 2 hours and end with a 3-2 vote to deny the magistrate’s report leaving the teacher contract at status quo. School district officials cited state mandates to shore up its fund balance to three percent instead of providing teacher raises. Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. said his recommendations were based on “the fiscal reality of the school district.”
“I wrote down what I wanted to say to make sure I’d get it all in and I don’t appreciate those comments,” said Gihousen, responding to an audience member who alleged she was reading from a statement prepared by Van Zant.
By the end of the meeting, the tension had evolved into fear as she asked a Clay County Sheriff’s deputy to escort her out of the building.
Fast forward to 2018 where Gilhousen is in the midst of her first-ever re-election campaign for the District 5 seat on the Clay County School Board. One glimpse of her direct mail campaign card that went out to voters last weekend and it’s clear to see what her priorities are not.
Put simply, it reads like she is a politician, not someone who cares for teachers or children. In fact, the word student appears on the mail piece one solitary time. The word teachers or teacher is nowhere to be found on the piece.
What she focuses on are political buzzwords, such as “conservative,” “leader,” and “school choice,” which translates into charter schools. And it’s a well-documented fact that her children attend St. Johns Classical Academy, the first-year charter school whose board president is her mother, Diane Hutchings, who is also a county commissioner.
There are some 5,000 employees of the Clay County School District who should read Gilhousen’s mail piece and decide for themselves who has their back going forward.
And it wouldn’t surprise that when school board term limits get voted in in November – which they likely will since Rick Scott has made them a hot-button issue again this year, as a state constitutional amendment – that Gilhousen, if re-elected doesn’t bounce over and try and run for County Commission or some other seat in the future, because, after all, once a politician, always a politician.