School board approves contract for new charter school

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FLEMING ISLAND – In the final session for outgoing Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. and Chairwoman Johnna McKinnon, the Clay County School Board pushed through a contract green-lighting a new charter school with a 3-2 vote last Thursday night.

Van Zant and McKinnon have been strong proponents of St. Johns Classical Academy. She, along with board members Ashley Gilhousen and Betsy Condon, voted to approve the charter school’s five-year contract while Janice Kerekes and Carol Studdard voted against it.

The board, in September’s meeting, had approved by the same vote margin the application of St. Johns Classical Academy, with the caveat that the accompanying contract meet the board’s standard criteria by February 2017.

The academy chose not to wait until February. Board attorney Dan Sikes helped draw up the new contract and contended that it meets all the board’s requirements.

“What is the rush,” Kerekes asked regarding the approval of the revised contract. “Is it because we’re going to have a new superintendent and new board member next month? We have 40 days to negotiate a contract, as the board, and we haven’t negotiated anything because we’re seeing it for the first time.

“It’s being rammed down our throats because it’s your friends,” she added, referring to Van Zant, McKinnon and Gilhousen.

All three have received campaign contributions from individuals or organizations with ties to the Barney Charter School Initiative of Hillsdale College, which launched St. Johns Classical Academy.

Gilhousen’s mother, Diane Hutchings, was president of the board of directors for St. Johns Classical Academy, but she resigned in August before the organization submitted its application to the school board.

“In an abundance of caution, she stepped down from that position,” Gilhousen said. “I spoke with the Florida Commission on Ethics … and because the board of directors are not paid – they are strictly volunteers – even with my mother being president of the board, I can vote on the contract without it being a conflict of interest.”

Kerekes challenged Gilhousen to produce written proof of the opinion she received from the ethics commission. Gilhousen said she was advised of the opinion over the phone.

“I don’t think this contract is in the best interest of Clay County schools,” Kerekes said.

Studdard echoed Kerekes’s concerns, and said she believed the contract should be for four years, not five. Kerekes listed examples of general sloppiness in the contract, page by page, pointing out typos, formatting errors and vague terminology.

A motion to table a vote on the contract was defeated 3-2, with Kerekes and Studdard losing the motion.

“It’s become embarrassing listening to this,” Van Zant said, addressing Kerekes and Studdard. “So I would just ask that you preserve whatever dignity you have left and call a vote (on approving the contract).”

In a public hearing during the meeting, three citizens spoke against approving the contract for St. Johns Classical Academy. Prior to September’s vote on the application itself, the Clay County Education Association took a stand opposing the approval of the charter school, as did the board’s own staff.

Among the 12 reasons the board’s staff gave for denying the application was an unclear and incoherent educational program as well as budgetary concerns.

Charter schools in Florida use public money that would otherwise go to county schoola. St. Johns Classical Academy promotes a “classical education.” It has a Judeo-Christian subtext. For example, it may offer Creationism as a scientific alternative to evolution. However, St. Johns Classical Academy mentions no such language on its website or in its mission statement, because it is illegal for publicly funded schools in Florida – or anywhere in the United States – to teach religious-based doctrine, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any faith.

Hillsdale College – a private institution and the parent organization of St. Johns Classical Academy – plainly asserts the Judeo-Christian tradition as part of its widespread educational mission.

Not all charter schools promote a classical education. Opponents of classical-education charters argue that such schools are subverting the law and, essentially, using public tax money to fund what would otherwise be a religious education reserved for private schools.

In an intense back-and-forth, Studdard asked McKinnon to give a definition of “classical education.” Several audience members yelled out that they wanted McKinnon to define it as well. McKinnon refused.

“Google it,” she told Studdard.

Advocates of charter schools point out that they are less encumbered by what many teachers call excessive standardized testing and having to “teach to the test.” While many classical-education schools have a religious bent, other schools promote a “secular classical education,” referring to a curriculum in Western-based liberal arts and sciences, rather than a practical, career-oriented curriculum.

St. Johns Classical Academy plans to open – at a yet to be determined location – for the 2017-2018 school year for grades K-8. It then plans to add one grade level per year, eventually becoming a K-12 school.

Van Zant was voted out of office in the Aug. 30 Republican primary. He was defeated by Addison Davis, chief of schools for Duval County, who has the endorsement of the Clay County Education Association. Davis faces longtime teacher Rebekah Shively, who has no party affiliation, in the Nov. 8 general election.

McKinnon was defeated by Argyle Elementary School teacher Mary Bolla.

Email Christiaan DeFranco at chris@opcfla.com. Follow him on Twitter @cdefranco.

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