Fleming Island, FL - The Clay County School Board is filing a formal ethics complaint with the state against Superintendent Charlie Van Zant, Jr. and asking the State Attorney and Governor to investigate him.
“If we do suspect that something illegal or unethical has taken place, we need to hire a body to look in to it,” says District 1 Board Member Janice Kerekes.
It was the first action performed after lengthy discussion on the “Dare to Think” conference and the District’s prior vote to disassociate entirely from it. While the school board made a point to mention they were under the impression the issue had previously been settled and that the district had not made a significant investment, the spending practices and use of district resources by Van Zant were questionable enough for three of the members present to look at further action. Board Vice-Chair Lisa Graham voted against the investigation request and District 4 Rep Johnna McKinnon was not present.
Van Zant himself was not present for the meeting, nor any of the senior staff.
A statement released by District Public Relations Officer Gavin Rollins 45 minutes before the meeting began explains the absence as “The Superintendent has a prior commitment this evening, as did several members of senior staff.” The statement further reads that the facts relating to this issue have not changed since the prior board meeting and “There is no financial or contractual relationship between the School District of Clay County and the conference on American history”.
Rollins says there is no concern at the district level about the formal complaint.
“It’s like asking Santa Claus for something on Christmas- you’re welcome to do it but it’s kind of a meaningless gesture,” he says.
He says the complaint itself is really just taking away focus from the students. It’s a goal that Board Chair Carol Studdard wants to get back to as well.
“We just need to get back to the focus that we’re here for, and that is to educate our students,” she says.
But she nonetheless felt the ethics filing was necessary because she believes many people who live in the district still have concerns.
“We’re certainly not saying that there is any impropriety or isn’t, we’re merely the messenger,” Studdard says.
Kerekes takes it one step further to say she “prays” nothing wrong actually happened and if an investigation takes place, it clears everything up. But she couldn’t help from questioning a contract signed by Van Zant- which she says he can’t do- using the school tax exempt ID which left the district liable, even though the conference organizer intended to pay the bill back.
“We were told ‘Oh it’s going to be paid back, it wasn’t intended to be paid’- that does not matter, we do not loan money,” she says.
Especially with a tight budget facing the District- referenced multiple times in the meeting- the board members want to make sure every dollar is going to its best use.
Money was a key focus for another agenda item on which the board ultimately did not act. Specifically, they were told by Van Zant that no taxpayer dollars would be used to support the “Dare to Think” conference, however, there is money that’s being used to pay for leave time and registration for conference attendees, as well as substitutes to fill in for any teachers who attend and miss class. The Board attorney stated there was nothing the members could do because that dealt with enforcing current codes, which is not a task of theirs to do. Studdard asked for a complete accounting of any district money spent on the conference to be presented at the next meeting, however, and hinted there would be some change in codes and procedures in future years.
The other item the Board considered was potential legal action against the conference organizer because the District’s logo and name continued to appear on promotional material after they voted to disassociate themselves from the event. Because the conference is in just a few days, the Board decided against legal action and any affiliated costs it would bring, instead encouraging the conference organizer once again to remove their branding from all promotional material.
Van Zant continues to personally partner with the conference, which he says promotes American History education.