CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Clay County School Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. said that he "flatly denies" the accusations of fraud and plagiarism made against him by a former high school principal.
In an interview with News4Jax Monday, Van Zant fought back following what he calls a pack of lies and gutter politics at its worst.
"These liars, again, are trying to take me to task for my principles and values that they can't stand," Van Zant said.
School board members fought last week over how to handle the claims, with the board chair deciding the school board would not be allowed to hold an open hearing about the matter. School board members Janice Kerekes and Carol Studdard expressed concerns after the special meeting to discuss the accusations was canceled.
Van Zant said that's absolutely proper because employees in the district have a right to confidentiality.
"It is absolutely gutter politics. These liars are making accusations that are over a year old, that should have been reported to either the Florida Commission on Ethics or me as the superintendent of schools, as per school board policy," Van Zant said. "But these liars do not want an investigation. These liars want to play the media. These liars knew we would be out of town last weekend, and our staff would have a three-day weekend."
Because members of the school board and the superintendent are elected officials, the district does not have the authority to investigate their conduct. According to Florida law, a sworn complaint with the Commission on Ethics is required to initiate an investigation into conduct of elected officials.
Van Zant said the media has fallen for a political maneuver.
"Again, I can't stress enough, the media has been played in all of this. The media is being played. They're playing right into the hands of lying Mrs. Studdard, the lying teachers union and you've got to look at who wins out of this," Van Zant said. "Addison Davis, my political opponent, he has the most to gain by me being discredited in the media."
The allegations, which Van Zant adamantly denies, came just days before voting started in a primary election in which he is opposed by fellow Republican Addison Davis, independent candidate Rebekah Shively and a write-in candidate.
"The timing is highly suspicious," Van Zant said.
News4Jax also spoke Monday with Davis, who said the allegations do not benefit him.
"If you're asking, does it benefit Addison Davis? The answer is absolutely not," Davis said. "It shouldn't be about whether Addison Davis benefits from it. It should be about what we're offering Clay County students."
Van Zant sent a letter Monday to the Florida Commission on Ethics, urging an investigation. He said it would clearly vindicate him, but said the timing works to his opponents' favor, not offering enough time for an independent investigation to happen.
Former Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne supports Van Zant. He told News4Jax that he blames the teachers union, saying it's engaged in a power play in Clay County.
"And that's what this is all about. This is about power. And they are the puppeteer. The puppets in this case, are a couple school board members -- Studdard and Kerekes. And they've also kind of adopted this person from Jacksonville, Addison Davis, to try and bring him along because they know that they can control those people. And they can move this sort of federal plan in education. And we're beginning to see them in different places in the state and we certainly don't want to see (them) in Clay County," Horne said.
Open letter sparks controversy
In an open letter to the school board, 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.
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 Thursday. Instead, Johnna McKinnon, the board's chair, decided to hold a special board meeting to review the issues raised in the letter, but the meeting was canceled.
Kerekes said the accusations were also put on the agenda to be discussed at the next school board meeting, but McKinnon removed the item.
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 in to 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.
Kerekes said having senior staff “literally do his homework” would be “appallingly unethical” for Van Zant, and it could be both a state and federal offense to falsely label students as Exceptional Student Education, which means they require special accommodation and increased funding for the district.