CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A Clay County School Board member is calling for an investigation into Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. after accusations of fraud and plagiarism were made against him by a former high school principal.
The allegations, which Van Zant adamantly denies, come weeks before a primary election in which Van Zant is opposed by fellow Republican Addison Davis, independent candidate Rebekah Shively and a write-in candidate.
In an open letter to the school board Thursday, former Keystone Heights High School principal Dr. Susan Sailor accused Van Zant of falsely labeling students with learning disabilities and forcing staff to write papers that he used to complete his master's degree.
Van Zant earned his degree in organizational leadership online through Virginia-based Regent University.
Sailor, who was Florida's teacher of the year in 1997, told News4Jax on Friday that she has supported Van Zant in the past, even giving money to his past and current campaign, but she said she's now appalled by his actions.
School board member Janice Kerekes, who represents District 1, called for a full-scale investigation into the allegations and requested that the board discuss and take action regarding the open letter at its next meeting on Aug. 18. Instead, the board's chair, Johnna McKinnon, decided to hold a special board meeting Wednesday to review the issues raised in the letter.
"I believe it is in the best interest of the district that we hold a special meeting for the purpose of reviewing the facts surrounding allegations brought to the board last week," McKinnon said. "As board chair, I have a responsibility to remain objective and neutral. When an individual within the district raises concerns of this nature, it is normal to undertake a fact-finding process."
“We have a legal responsibility to act on it when we're given this information. We have to report it to the Department of Education at both the state and federal level,” Kerekes said. “I was appalled when I saw this and saddened that our reputation of our school district would be put at risk.”
She said she wrote a research paper last year under the guise it was for the school system, but she now believes it was turned into Regent University as part of Van Zant's master's degree. She said Van Zant asked for MLA citations and gave her four or five textbooks from Regent University to use.
“This was shocking to me,” Kerekes said. “If we had a student that plagiarized a paper, we would give them an F and bring them before the board for reprimand.”
Regent University said it cannot comment on students' education records due to federal law.
Kerekes said having senior staff “literally do his homework” would be “appallingly unethical” for Van Zant and that it could be both a state and federal offense to falsely label students as Exception Student Education, which means they require special accommodation and increases funding for the district.
Kerekes said ESE students also do not count against the district's graduation rate.
“I believe that this was done in an effort to make it look like our graduation rate is higher than it really is,” Kerekes said. “The truth is this tactic could potentially hurt these students in the long run.”
Kerekes said that since sending the letter to the school board, Sailor, who now works in the district office, has reported she is locked out of her school district email and can no longer access her data.
“These accusations are disheartening,” Kerekes said. “Clay County expects better from its school leadership, to say the least.”
Rena Lee Pavia, the president of the Clay County Education Association, said she wants this investigated.
“I'm dismayed by it,” Pavia said. “I'm concerned by it. I'm not totally surprised by it.”
Kerekes, who is campaigning for Davis, has been one of Van Zant's biggest critics and pushed for a state ethics probe into the superintendent in 2013 over his use of district resources.
News4Jax left messages at several numbers for Van Zant, emailed him and stopped by his home, but he could not be reached for comment.
He later posted a response to the allegations on Facebook, saying the accusations were politically motivated and "blatantly false or taken wholly out of context."
A spokeswoman for the district did release a statement:
District administration has obtained a copy of the email sent from a district employee to school board members dated Aug. 4. Administration categorically denies the statements contained within. In light of the fact that we are in the midst of political season, the timing of the email is both questionable and unfortunate."