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Crowded Clay School Board primary focuses on superintendent selection, budget and charter schools

Posted: August 23, 2014 - 9:21pm  |  Updated: August 24, 2014 - 11:14am
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Candidate provided -- 07/22/14 -- Sandra Dunnavant is a candidate for Clay County School Board District 5
Candidate provided -- 07/22/14 -- Sandra Dunnavant is a candidate for Clay County School Board District 5

Clay School Board candidates

District 1

Janice Kerekes


Age: 52

Occupation: Full-time School Board member, volunteer with nonprofit and community organizations

Family: Married with three children

Education: Suffolk County Community College; Rollins College, Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership Center

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Regain Clay’s status as an academically high performing school district in Florida

Kenny Leigh

Age: 45

Occupation: Attorney

Family: Married with four children

Education: Law degree from Nova Southeastern University, bachelor’s degree from University of North Florida

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Return Clay to top 10 academically high-performing districts statewide

Amber Harmony Shepherd

Age: 32

Occupation: Fortis College director of career services

Family: Married with four children

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling from Trinity Theological College and Seminary and working on a master’s degree in biblical counseling, associate’s degree in business management from St. Johns River Community College

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Encourage environment of teamwork and camaraderie among the board members, superintendent, school personnel and residents

District 3

Tina Bullock


Age: 65

Occupation: Retired career educator

Family: Married with one child

Education: Master’s degree in education administration and supervision from University of North Florida, bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Jacksonville University

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Improve the district’s financial position by reducing the percentage of the budget used for salaries and rebuilding the reserve fund

Betsy Condon

Age: No answer

Occupation: President of Keystone Recreation Association, volunteers as school advisory committee member

Family: Married with two children

Education: Bachelor’s degree in environmental health science from University of Georgia

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Restore civility to the School Board and work to improve its public image

District 5

Sandra Dunnavant

Age: 70

Occupation: Retired career educator

Family: Widow with two sons

Education: Master’s degree from Florida State University, bachelor’s degree from Texas Woman’s University

Prior elected office: Green Cove Springs City Council, twice each as mayor and vice mayor

Top priority: Help people understand the importance of implementing a curriculum with rigorous standards to ensure students are ready for the increasing demands of the job market

Ashley Gilhousen

Age: 29

Occupation: Registered nurse

Family: Married with three sons

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of North Florida, associate’s degree from University of Florida

Prior elected office: None

Top priority: Raise the reserve fund balance by prioritizing spending while maintaining focus on top-quality education

Brian Graham

Age: 30

Occupation: Bradford County School District community relations coordinator

Family: Single

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from Flagler College, associate’s degree in Political Science from Santa Fe College

Prior elected office: Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Top priority: Return civility to the School Board

GREEN COVE SPRINGS | Clay County voters will choose between eight candidates running for three seats on the county School Board in Tuesday’s primary.

Issues include whether the school district superintendent should be elected or appointed, the budget and rebuilding the reserve fund, and charter schools. The continuing contentiousness between Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. and three board members, including two on the ballot, is a backdrop to the races.

The School Board is nonpartisan and all districts are at-large, meaning the election is open to voters countywide. The candidates are vying for four-year terms.

The candidates are District 1: incumbent Janice Kerekes, Kenny Leigh and Amber Harmony Shepherd; District 3: incumbent Tina Bullock and Betsy Condon; and District 5: Sandra Dunnavant, Ashley Gilhousen and Brian Graham.

Favoring an elected superintendent are Condon, Leigh, Shepherd, Gilhousen and Graham. Dunnavant said the superintendent should be elected but nonpartisan. Favoring an appointed superintendent are Kerekes and Bullock.

Clay has one charter school now, and the board recently approved an application from another. All the candidates support the overall concept of charter schools and said they would evaluate each application on its own merit.

The district, with a tentative total budget of $312 million, is working to rebuild its reserve fund, which dropped below the level required by Florida last year. The candidates agreed rebuilding the reserves and trimming expenses would be a top priority.


Kerekes is seeking her second term. Leigh and Shepherd are making their first run at elected office.

Serving on the board, Kerekes said, is her full-time job, full-time commitment and that working for the students, parents and community is her passion.

“This is not a steppingstone for me,” Kerekes said. “I think I bring common sense. I’m not afraid to speak my mind and do what I believe is really, truly in the best interest of our kids.”

Giving back to the community, Leigh said, is his primary reason for running. He said Kerekes is bad for the school system and the board. Leigh said he would bring the perspective of a business professional and wouldn’t engage in the in-fighting that has become common at the panel’s meetings.

“I’m not on a power trip. I just want to help,” Leigh said.

“… I am absolutely 100 percent focused on the students.”

Shepherd said she’s running to restore to the board the traditional values that she believes county residents hold dear.

Those values include protecting freedom of religion such as prayer around the flagpole on school campuses and freedom of speech by not imposing policies censuring residents’ ability to speak at board meetings, she said.

“I believe we need individuals who are able to stand up in leadership and be strong and hold tight to constitutional rights and citizen rights,” Shepherd said.



Finishing a two-year unexpired term, Bullock now is seeking a full four-year term. Condon is making her first attempt at elected office.

Bullock said she’s seeking re-election because she has a passion for the school system. She said having worked her way up from the classroom to become high school principal, she understands how the district works and is dedicated to the job. Bullock also said she’s been encouraged by people who described her as “the voice of reason” on the board.

“Everything I’ve ever been involved in has been about bettering the community in which I’ve lived. … I believe it is my job to give back, and this is my way to do that,” Bullock said.

Condon said restoring civility to the board and improving its public image would be her first priority. She would “implement this by not engaging in the personal disagreements and differences of opinion and by finding common ground to work together for the betterment of the students, teachers and administrators.”


The District 5 race is to replace incumbent Lisa Graham, who is retiring after 24 years. Among the candidates is her son.

Brian Graham said he has broad experience including working with Communities in Schools, serving as a district-level school system administrator and as Gov. Rick Scott’s appointee to the Early Learning Coalition of North Florida Inc., which funds $30 million in early learning programs in Baker, Bradford, Clay, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties.

“I believe that every child deserves an opportunity to achieve the American dream, and that dream begins with education,” Graham said.

Dunnavant said for 43 years as an educator she’s advocated for children. Serving on the board will continue that mission, she said. “I believe very strongly that every single child has a right to the best education they can possibly get. … And I believe we need qualified, experienced, educated people to ensure that they get it,” Dunnavant said.

Describing herself as a concerned parent who wants to be involved, Gilhousen said she was inspired to run by her three sons; her oldest will start kindergarten next year. Her contribution would be to bring a “scientific approach to problem-solving.” It would be based on gathering non-biased information through assessment and knowing how to collect data that gives the big picture about what is happening, she said.

“I also believe it is important there be a voice from this generation of parents raising their children in this generation’s school system,” Gilhousen said.

To win outright in Districts 1 and 5, a candidate must receive 50 percent plus 1 vote. If nobody does that, then the top two vote-getters in the race go on to the Nov. 4 general election. The District 3 primary is winner take all, said Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless.


Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075

Comments (1)

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Swampdog 08/25/14 - 09:26 am
Premium Member

I am very worried about the

I am very worried about the traditional values. I believe in freedom of religion and the freedom of parents to determine what their very young children are exposed to regarding religion I would not want my 9 year old grandchild exposed to some of the crazies that have been supporting Van Zant. Mrs Shepard is determined to impose her religion on all our children and grandchildren.

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