William Korach is caught in a maelstrom fueled by warring factions of the Clay County School Board and Superintendent Charles Van Zant Jr. over a conference on history and "American exceptionalism."
" ‘American exceptionalism' was first discussed by Alex[is] de Tocqueville to describe the liberty only found in America. Since then, it has been embraced by our leader and by families to say to their kids ‘You could be president,' " Korach said.
"I would have thought that a conference on history and ‘American exceptionalism' would be noncontroversial," said Korach, who didn't expect this firestorm in the fractious governing body which sets school policies.
"There seems to be a conflict between factions on the board. Certain members of the board seem to want to inflict political damage on Mr. Van Zant," said Korach, who lives in
St. Johns County. "I just sort of stepped into it."
Most School Board members were unaware of the superintendent's support of Korach's "Dare to Think: A Conference on Restoring America's Heritage" and early advertising which indicated the Clay County Schools was a co-sponsor of the Nov. 4-5 event.
The issue erupted at an Oct. 15 meeting during which the School Board voted unanimously to ask Korach to remove any reference to the school system in all announcements, advertisements and other materials related to the conference.
The Board followed up with a special meeting on Oct. 30, voting 3-1, with one member abstaining and another absent, to send a letter to the state ethics commission and Gov. Rick Scott asking for an investigation of the superintendent and his involvement with the "Dare to Think" conference.
Van Zant said he did nothing wrong, but some School Board members thought it was improper for the superintendent to use the district's name to sponsor a conference they say has partisan ties. The School Board also took issue with Van Zant using $2,037 of school funds and the district's tax-exempt status to secure the facility at a discount. Board members said Van Zant does not have authority to sign a contract.
"Mr. Van Zant, shame on you! This is not your personal checkbook," Board member Janice Kerekes said at the Oct. 15 meeting.
Gavin Rollins, a school district spokesman speaking on behalf of the superintendent, said it is a nonissue since the district is not affiliated with the conference and Van Zant is more concerned with educating the children of Clay County.
"Anybody can send a letter," said Rollins, noting that neither the superintendent nor any of the staff did anything wrong.
Van Zant, his senior staff and Board member Johnna McKinnon all stayed away from the special meeting where citizen after citizen espoused their views on the conference, Korach and the Clay County school system in general.
School Board Chairman Carol Studdard said, prior to the meeting, that all she knew about Korach and his "Dare to Think" conference was what she learned on the Internet.
While earlier advertisements for the conference listed it as being sponsored by the Clay County School Board, they now say it is co-sponsored by Clay County Superintendent Charles Van Zant Jr. and Korach's website, The Report Card.
Korach, 68, said he's been thinking about putting on a conference for about two years because he believes schools are not teaching enough history and American heritage, along with reading and writing.
He writes a blog on The Report Card, which includes stories dealing with education issues.
He insists his conference and his publication are nonpartisan, though Korach is first vice chairman of the Republican Party in St. Johns County and writes a blog for the First Coast Tea Party.
He also recently published a history textbook, "Rock of the Republic," with separate editions for Christian and private schools, which espouses conservative philosophy.
Korach met Van Zant, and he said the superintendent liked his ideas on the teaching of more history in schools.
"It is vital that we teach our children a true account of American history, and to share with them the elements that made this nation exceptional. We need to encourage an interest in American history and the founding principles," Van Zant said in a statement.
McKinnon, a friend of Korach's, paid $2,037 from the school district funds to reserve the meeting space at Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts on St. Johns River State College's Orange Park campus for the conference after consulting Van Zant. McKinnon used the district's tax-exempt status to get a discount. Korach repaid the school district and used his own tax-exempt status to book the conference.
McKinnon, serving her first term on the Board, said she had made a rookie mistake.
Rollins said it is common for the district to pay to reserve the center and be reimbursed.
"The school district of Clay County does not have a financial or contractual relationship with the ‘Dare to Think' conference, and zero taxpayer funds are going to sponsor this event," Rollins said.
The Rev. Harry Parrott, a frequent critic of Van Zant and president of the Clay County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "the School Board is in an uproar most of the time because of
"The more I attend these meetings, the more surprised I am in how incompetent Charlie Van Zant is as superintendent," said Parrott, a retired Baptist minister.
Parrott was involved in a battle with the previous administration over before-school prayer meetings on school grounds. Van Zant, then a Clay County School Board member, was opposed to restrictions on the meetings.
Last spring, Korach spoke at a meeting of the St. Augustine Tea Party, urging it to convince the St. Johns County School Board to allow student-led prayers at graduation. The School Board refused.
In 2011, Korach said, he was a co-author of a 90-page study for Citizens for National Security on "Islam in Florida's K-12 Textbooks."
Textbook companies hire Muslims to write about Islam, he said, and "the people hire associates of the Muslim Brotherhood and support Sharia law in the United States."
"They are keen on indoctrinating kids in school," he said.
Korach is a Navy veteran, a retired businessman and former executive at Citibank and other large companies. He's also active in the Navy League, which sponsors an annual essay on the World War II battle of Midway.
Korach, who lives at Marsh Landing Country Club in St. Johns County, assured the Clay County School Board that his website and the conference are nonpartisan and he never intended to have the School Board pay for anything to do with the conference.
"I have never thought of it as a partisan event, until the attack by the Democratic Executive Committee made it partisan," he said.
Tom Nazworth, chairman of the Clay County Democratic Party's executive committee, urged Democrats to keep an eye on Van Zant's actions.
"There are continuing efforts within the county to inject political and religious views by using the superintendent's office as cover," Nazworth said a statement released by the party.
Korach attended the Oct. 30 meeting as an observer and did not speak.
"It felt like a witch hunt or lynching. That is what it sounded like to me," Korach said. "It is pretty ugly."
Korach said he hoped to have about 100 people at the conference, with admissions prices ranging from $99 to $125, and he expects a crowd of educators, business people and veterans. Van Zant is one of the speakers.
"I will probably lose thousands of dollars," Korach said.
He said he hopes Van Zant will announce some changes in Clay County's teaching of history "to improve things."
"The issues with history are national," Korach said. "I would like to see this conversation take place around the country."
Other speakers at the conference are Daniel Scoggins, CEO of Great Hearts Charter Management Organization, which operates 16 charter schools in Arizona; Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, whose mission "is to promote academic freedom in colleges and universities"; and the Rev. Marty McCarthy, president of Cornerstone Educational Foundation, which "exists to bring excellent charter schools to Florida and North Carolina" and other states. Korach said he is Cornerstone's vice president.
Clay County has only one pending
"We believe in choice. Charters improve traditional public schools," Korach said.
"The conference is noncontroversial," Korach said. "Everything is politicized nowadays. I think it's sad. We are still planning to have a conference. Hopefully, good things will come out of it.
"All we want to do is bring excellence back to schools."