Voters hear from candidates

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 7/25/18

ORANGE PARK - While multiple candidates introduced themselves and discussed their platforms at a recent candidate forum, the liveliest discussion took place among the seven candidates vying for three …

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Voters hear from candidates


ORANGE PARK - While multiple candidates introduced themselves and discussed their platforms at a recent candidate forum, the liveliest discussion took place among the seven candidates vying for three seats on the Clay County School Board.

Sponsored by the Clay County Republican Executive Committee, some 150 guests attended the July 19 event at Ridgeview High School. Attendees also heard from candidates running for a Fourth Judicial Circuit judgeship, a seat in the House of Representatives and a Board of County Commissioners seat.

After one-minute candidate self-introductions, moderator Kent Justice launched into questions for School Board District 1 candidates, incumbent Janice Kerekes and her opponent Latanya Peterson. The first question came across as a bit of a softball and asked candidates to explain their positions on recusing themselves from a school board vote.

Kerekes answered first by referring to a Florida Statute that lays out the circumstances in which an elected official should recuse themselves from a vote and Peterson agreed.

“State statutes are the supreme authority in these instances, as my opponent has already mentioned,” Peterson said. “You also want to make sure that you are not vested in special interests that contribute to your campaign [during a vote] and you have to make sure you’re honest at all times.”

Peterson has accepted campaign separate $500 contributions from at least one charter school company, Red Apple Development LLC and another consulting firm, The Horne Group, which lobbies the Florida Legislature on behalf of charter schools.

When Justice asked District Three incumbent Betsy Condon and her opponent, Tina Bullock, about the challenges facing the school board today, Condon focused on the need to bolster the use of technology and trade education in Clay County schools. Bullock focused on the budget, citing a need to provide more funds to teachers. Both agreed school safety should remain a priority throughout the county.

It wasn’t until Justice asked Peterson and Kerekes about charter schools that the discussion became heated. Not only did Peterson and Kerekes speak their minds about this hot-button topic in the county, but District Five incumbent Ashley Gilhousen and Bullock got involved as well.

According to Peterson, charter schools simply represent another choice parents have when selecting a school for their children.

“It’s no different than choosing what stores to shop in, what car we want, what jobs we want,” Peterson said. “I support charter schools.”

Kerekes drastically disagreed with Peterson’s position, citing the idea that charter schools are meant to be presented as options for parents in locales that have failing schools. According to Kerekes, there are no failing schools in Clay County, which begs the question of why are charter schools in the area at all.

Gilhousen, whose mother, County Commissioner Diane Hutchings, serves as the St. Johns Classical Academy charter school founding and current board president, sided with Peterson. Gilhousen said charter schools are held to the same standard as any other school in the county. After Gilhousen, Bullock said the idea that money doesn’t follow students leaving charter schools, an issue hurting the funds of the school board.

“A lot of people think the money follows our child when they go to a charter school and that’s correct,” Bullock said. “But you know what, it doesn’t follow them back[to the public school]. So, in other words, if they go over to a charter school and decide they’re unhappy or dissatisfied, guess what they do; guess where they go back to: public schools. Guess where the money stays, though[at the charter school].”

Charter schools remained the hot topic for a bit longer after Justice brought up low grades for some schools in the county. One of the biggest surprises in Clay County’s school grades this year was St. Johns Classical Academy receiving a “C.” That school’s C comes a year after charter school Orange Park Performing Arts Academy had its charter revoked by Clay County and the state for getting an “F” grade.

Bullock said a “C” grade isn’t the kind of difference anybody wants from a charter school, playing into the idea that charter schools offer students a different kind of education. Condon was quick to defend SJCA, though, and brought Clay Charter Academy into the conversation. According to Condon, when this school opened, it did so as a “C” school. The following year, it received a “B” and this year, an “A.”

“Using one year as a microcosm to say whether a school should be approved or not is one, not statutory and two, not a fair comparison of those kids,” Condon said.

The discussions continued with moderation by Justice bringing issues such as state legislature communications, school resource officers and budget priorities into the conversation. Almost entirely across the board, the candidates found themselves in moderate agreement with each other, finding dissention not in the goals, but of the methods in reaching them.

For example, everyone agreed that School Resource Officers should be placed in every school. Some, such as Peterson, felt that what was already in place was in motion and that rather than jumping the gun, everyone should wait until January to see what the legislature can and does do. Kerekes and Bullock, though, both agreed that the responsibility to put SROs in every school falls on the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, not the school board. Kerekes said it is CCSO’s job to protect the residents of the county and provide safety to all, which, includes children, staff and faculty at school.

To close out the school board candidate discussion, Justice asked each member about term limits and whether or not they should be implemented into the Clay County School Board system. There is a State Constitution Revision question on the ballot this fall asking voters to set school board term limits at two years.

One of Gilhousen’s opponents, Lynn Hirabayashi Chaffee, is not in favor of term limits.

“I am not in favor of term limits,” Chaffee said. “If voters are happy with what their public officials are doing, then public officials will be voted in and continue doing what they’re doing. If they don’t like it, they won’t [vote them back in].”

Kerekes and Bullock agreed with Chaffee, citing that some elected officials are extremely valuable resources in their positions, both in knowledge and wisdom from serving for extended periods of time. By setting term limits, boards such as the Clay County School Board might lose valuable resources simply because a term limit says they can’t serve again.

Gilhousen spoke one word to answer this question: absolutely. Her other opponent, Travis Christensen, agreed.

“Yes I do and I actually went to two meetings in Tallahassee and spoke at the meetings of the Constitutional Revision Commission, and one or two meetings in Jacksonville that involved the same subject, to explain [why there should be term limits],” Christensen said.

Condon also favors term limits, citing her belief in remaining a true conservative, although she doesn’t believe that decision should be made in the constitution. Peterson also said she’s in favor of term limits.

Following that question, Justice allowed each candidate another 30 seconds to finalize their positions as candidates for the Clay County School Board.

In other races, judgeship candidates Maureen Horkan of Jacksonville and former state representative Charles McBurney of Jacksonville spent a few minutes describing their plans as a potential judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which serves Nassau, Duval and Clay County. Judson Sapp and U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho(R-3) focused on issues important to Clay such as infrastructure construction and veteran affairs.

After that discussion, County Commissioner Gavin Rollins and his Republican opponent Smitty Huffman had what was easily the most heated discussion of the night. They had dissenting positions on leadership in District Four, time spent on and away from the BCC and who deposits what into their opponent’s pocket.

Clay County voters will have the chance to choose which of these candidates will represent their district in the upcoming primary election on Aug. 28. It’s possible that the race for Gilhousen’s seat will go to a run-off following the Aug. 28 election. In Clay County, school board members run as non-partisan seats and voting is open to every registered voter in Clay. Early voting runs from Aug. 18-25 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at six sites in Clay County. Voters must be registered to vote on or before July 30 to vote in the Aug. 28 primary.


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