December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

An Americans United activist in Florida spoke out recently against a local school superintendent’s attempt to align his school district with a right-wing conference.

The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville reported that Clay County Schools Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. had attempted to partner with a conference called “Dare To Think: A Conference on Restoring America’s Heritage,” which took place Nov. 4-5 in Orange Park, Fla.

The event was sponsored by The Report Card, a conservative policy organization that ostensibly advocates for expanded civics offerings in public schools.

Critics said there was more to the agenda. They pointed to the conference’s website, which vowed to “Instill an appreciation of American Exceptionalism and heritage” in attendees as well as “Engender an appreciation of historical benefits of the Free Markets in America” and “Drive an understanding of America’s place in the world.”

Van Zant ran into trouble when he agreed to partner his school district with the conference even though he didn’t have approval to do so from the Clay County School Board. Van Zant had assistance from a single board member, Johnna McKinnon, who reserved a space for the meeting at the Thrasher-Horne Center using the district’s name, which allowed the conference coordinators to receive a 25 percent discount, the Times-Union said.

At an Oct. 15 school board meeting, Van Zant came under fire from both board members and the audience, including Harry Parrott, a retired minister and president of the Clay County Chapter of Americans United. Parrott said Van Zant had not told the board about the conference initially, and he demanded an investigation of Van Zant’s activities.

“I urge you that you contact the office of the governor, the office of the state attorney and the Florida Ethics Commission,” Parrott told the board. “This fiasco should be proof positive to anyone with ears to hear that Superintendent Van Zant and Johnna McKinnon are part of a deliberate campaign to remake this school system according to their ultra-conservative ideology.”

Parrott was one of 23 people who criticized the school district’s involvement with the conference, the Times-Union reported. The board subsequently voted to disassociate from the conference.

Nonetheless, even after the conference had ended, its website still listed Van Zant as a partner with the event.