It’s no surprise that many teachers in Clay County are frustrated with current Superintendent Charlie Van Zant. We have blogged about it, posted on Facebook, spoken at school board meetings, and written letters to the newspaper. Most of the teachers who are speaking up have professional services contracts. No, that doesn’t mean tenure. No, that doesn’t mean a job for life. It means we have due process. We cannot be arbitrarily let go at the end of the school year. Although any teacher, regardless of contract status, should feel comfortable voicing their concerns and opinions, annual contract teachers live in fear of being told they are “not a good fit” and their contract is not being renewed.
With all of this anger and frustration towards the superintendent and some school board members, why aren’t we hearing from school and district level administrators? Their silence this election cycle is deafening. Many people don’t realize that they are on annual contract too. They fear being transferred or losing their job at the end of each year. As much as the Van Zant campaign likes to use catchy phrases about not bringing Duval policies to Clay (as a slight against his opposition, Addison Davis), the constant shuffling of administrators is a trademark Duval tactic that we have seen a lot of in the last few years.
Clay County administrators have been virtually silent about our current situation, which is a shame. Their insight into district policies and how they have affected teacher morale would shed more light on what is going on in our schools.
Despite their lack of gusto in supporting Van Zant for reelection, there is one critical way that they have shown their “support” for our current superintendent – with their wallets. A quick trip to the Clay County Supervisor of Elections website will show you that the campaign contributions have been rolling in. While I wasn’t there to see those checks being written, one can only assume that for many administrators it was with gritted teeth and after much moral wrangling. I’m willing to bet some of them have never donated to a political campaign in their life. I take that back. Some of them did donate once before – to Van Zant’s 2012 campaign. Interestingly, the donations from administrators were still pouring in even after he defeated Ben Wortham in the primary election. There was zero chance of his losing the general election, yet the money kept coming. Draw your own conclusions there.
I participated in the legislative committee meeting where CCEA vetted Addison Davis. The subject of campaign contributions came up and he stated that he would not seek out contributions from Duval County administrators because it wasn’t right to put them in that position. I wish our superintendent had done the same. Sending district level administrators into schools to encourage donations is ethically questionable. Using any means, stated or implied, to pressure your employees to fund your reelection campaign is wrong. It amounts to extortion. Pay-to-play doesn’t seem like a traditional family value to me. The right thing to do would have been to announce that he would decline all donations from his employees to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
One of the worst parts about these donations is that they are causing rifts at the school level. Many teachers have become disheartened after finding out that one of their administrators has made a donation. While we understand the pressure that they are under and sympathize with them, it still stings. Teachers have been putting their jobs on the line to stand up for their students and their working conditions, only to have their bosses unwittingly help the very man whom many of us view as just a politician climbing his way up the ladder, not an education practitioner looking out for the best interests of all students.
*Upon further reflection, I want to make it clear that the intent of this post is not to “out” specific administrators for their donations. I actually feel sorry for them. I know why they did what they did. They have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed just like teachers do. They know on which side their bread is buttered. It is a shame that they are put in this difficult position. It’s too bad they don’t have a union that would protect them against this unfair labor practice.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” - Aldous Huxley
“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin
While I hate to draw further attention to this group, as a teacher I cannot resist the opportunity to share my opinion on the dangers of this type of close-minded thinking. Many people like this will be voting on August 30 in order to “take a stand for their conservative values”. I don’t believe they truly have our schools’ best interests in mind.
There are so many things that jump out at me in this post:
1. “Liberal” is practically a four-letter word to some people. I took the liberty of looking up the definition of liberal and here is what I found: “open to new behavior or opinions”, “concerned mainly with broadening a person's general knowledge and experience”. Synonyms: “tolerant”, “non-prejudiced”, “forward-looking”. Scary stuff!
As much as this will ruffle many conservatives’ feathers, I have to say it: The very concept of public education in the United States has an inherently liberal bias. (If you see the word ‘liberal” and automatically think “democrat”, please re-read the above definitions.) As educators, it is our job to expose our students to new ideas and broaden their general knowledge. Not preach. Not indoctrinate. Not brainwash. EXPOSE. The very idea of educating ALL children at the taxpayers’ expense is progressive.
2. If you read the article that is attached to the post (http://news.wjct.org/post/duval-par...), Duval County Superintendent Vitti does a good job of explaining why the two books in question were selected as part of the curriculum. I’ve never been a big fan of his, but he is absolutely on point regarding this issue.
Exposing children to other religions should be applauded, not criticized. Reading a book where the characters are Muslim is not tantamount to religious indoctrination. (Side note: Would it be so bad if more people read the Koran so that they could see and interpret for themselves what it says, good or bad???) Why stop there? Should we remove any book from our curriculum that contains characters who do not perfectly adhere to traditional Judeo-Christian values? No more books with divorced people. No more books with murders. No more books with characters who lie. We can’t expose our children to these dangerous ideas! I doubt that anyone would go that far. There would be no books left. It seems that sin is ok to read about as long as it’s Christians doing the sinning.
At the heart of the argument against exposing children to new things is the idea that they cannot think for themselves. You will rarely hear a teacher make this argument. We give our students Alice in Wonderland and don’t worry that they will become addicted to opium due to that cute, fuzzy caterpillar. As long as the books are age-appropriate, teachers should be trusted as professionals to include them in their curriculum.
3. The current push in education is to get every child “college and career ready”. (I have so many issues with that phrase, but that’s another rant for another day.) How can our students work alongside their diverse peers and be ready to compete in the global job market if they are not exposed to ideas not present in their current bubble? They need a basic understanding of other countries, other cultures, other religions, etc., in order to function in today’s society. That is the job of public education. What are we teaching our kids when we say that some knowledge is off-limits and do not given them the opportunity to learn and judge for themselves?
4. Teachers should be trusted to take the curriculum supplied by the district and augment/supplement as necessary to meet the needs of their students. We have always done this and will continue to do so because we are professionals. I am all for parent and community involvement when selecting curriculum, but ultimately, teachers have to be trusted enough to make the right decisions regarding the education of their students. Yes, it’s YOUR kid, not mine. That’s why they are in your care for more hours of the day than mine. It’s YOUR body, but you trust your doctor because they have specialized knowledge about medicine. It’s YOUR house, but you trust the architects/engineers who designed it because they have specialized knowledge about construction. It teachers are not being given this same level of trust, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands than a few controversial books.
5. Considering all of the tragedies that are occurring here and abroad that center around hate and bigotry against one group or another, I am absolutely terrified of people who advocate for LESS knowledge, LESS exposure to other view points, LESS open discussion and debate. Intellectual walls are dangerous - they keep good ideas out and allow bad ideas to fester.
While I don’t claim to speak for all teachers, I’d like to share a few thoughts about why many of us can’t wait to break up with our current superintendent on August 30. Like any good break-up story, this one involves lying, cheating, and poor communication.
1. We have been accused of never giving Van Zant a chance. His supporters say we have been antagonistic since his first day in office. While this is an odd way to begin a relationship, this is one that many of us never wanted to be a part of in the first place. Using a (now infamous) loophole in the elections laws, Van Zant disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters in Clay County to defeat Ben Wortham in the 2012 primary. His election that November felt more like an arranged marriage than a first date. This left many teachers in Clay County very bitter. We felt like our school system was being used for the dowry that this position would bring to his political resume. Our students should not be used as a stepping stone to a higher political office.
2. Once he was in office, Van Zant did little to mend this fissure. He doesn’t even acknowledge why it is there in the first place. His supporters claim that the teachers’ union is sowing these seeds of discontent - that we are convincing teachers to dislike Van Zant. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that if you love someone, no amount of “he’s no good for you” from your friends will change your mind. You must see it for yourself and then acknowledge that they were right all along. I have spoken with many teachers who voted for Van Zant in 2012 but now say that they wish they had not.
During our 3 1/2 year relationship with Van Zant, we have felt marginalized, mistrusted, and undervalued. The school district has made decision after decision without seeking true input from teachers. They take us out to dinner, but then order our meal for us. They have paid outside consultants instead of trusting and relying on our expertise. The recent fumbled implementation of Professional Learning Communities is a prime example.
3. The current election has only served to confirm our desire to move on. At the last superintendent debate, Van Zant ended by saying that he was sick and tired of President Obama shredding our Constitution. What does that have to do with running public schools in Clay County??? Nothing. While he is whispering these sweet nothings in the ears of conservative voters in Clay County, the rest of us are left wondering why he isn’t talking about education.
He isn’t talking about education because he’s not an educator, although he did manage to teach Kenny Leigh a thing or two about elections laws. The movement for an appointed superintendent stemmed from the desire to have actual qualifications for this position other than just residing in the county. One would think that if you lacked expertise in an area, you would seek out the advice and knowledge of those who do.
The recent bargaining impasse hearing shed some light on our rocky relationship. The public is becoming aware of just how much teachers have bent the last few years. We are now at a breaking point. We have taken the abuse, but we are now seeing the effect it is having on our students. Staying together for this children’s sake would not be healthy for anyone involved.
Mr. Van Zant, no means no.