TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The former high school principal who has accused Clay County Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. of fraud and plagiarism insisted Friday that the timing of the allegations is not politically motivated.
In an open letter to the school board sent earlier this month, 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.
The allegations, which Van Zant said earlier this week that he "flatly denies," were made public just days before voting started in a primary election in which Van Zant is opposed by fellow Republican Addison Davis, independent candidate Rebekah Shively and a write-in candidate.
Sailor held a news conference Friday, saying she has been questioned by Van Zant and his supporters, who say the timing of her letter was highly suspicious.
"I have been bombarded with assumptions promulgated by Mr. Van Zant and his supporters saying that the timing of my letter is highly suspicious and politically motivated. Over the last 10 months, I followed proper protocol and shared my concerns with Mr. Van Zant on three occasions," Sailor said.
Sailor also said she could no longer keep quiet, because she was concerned about the dropping academic performance, yet rising graduation rate.
“I could no longer be silent as our schools and district dropped in academic performance while Mr. Van Zant continued to trumpet our increasing graduation rate. There is an obvious disconnect between those two sets of data. A discerning leader would ask why," Sailor said.
Clay County School District spokesperson Lauren Bankart responded to Sailors quote saying, "The district's academic performance did not decline, the state changed the grading formula for this year's assessments. Had the same comparative formula been used for school and district grades this year, Clay County would remain an A. This change left only 3 A districts in the state, compared to 22 A districts the previous year.
The Clay County School District was notified Wednesday that the Florida Department of Education's inspector general and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents are investigating allegations against Van Zant Jr.
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.
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.
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.
"District administrators have consistently maintained that these claims are false. We welcome the opportunity to put these allegations to rest and will cooperate to the fullest extent with investigators," district communications coordinator Lauren Bankert said in a statement Thursday. "Since a third-party investigation is now underway, the district will not provide any further comment until the investigative agencies have concluded their review and reported their findings."
Davis, who is running against Van Zant, told News4Jax Monday that 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."
Sailor, who was Florida's teacher of the year in 1997, previously told News4Jax 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.
Sailor 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.