Belle Terre Elementary Principal Terence Culver, one of the more charismatic principals in the district, abruptly announced his retirement to school staff today, five days after he submitted a letter to Superintendent Jim Tager saying he’d be retiring effective Jan. 3. But Culver is not expected to return to school between now and his official retirement day.
Culver does not explain in his letter why he’s retiring after 35 years in education, the last six as principal at Belle Terre–a school that had been rated A for 10 straight years since it opened in 2006, but that fell to a B for three successive years starting in 2016. The school regained the A this year.
But his departure takes place at a time when Belle Terre Elementary has been the subject of a series of internal investigations, including about unaccounted dollars in the Parent Teacher Organization’s account, and when Culver himself was currently under internal investigation resulting from complaints about a hostile work environment. That investigation is expected to be completed in December, a school official said today.
The school district announced Culver’s retirement in a terse, three-paragraph statement this afternoon that described Culver’s “satisfaction of being provided the opportunity to achieve many career goals,” such as the popular annual African-American Read-In every February, among other achievements. The district’s announcement did not include the usual quotes from the superintendent adding praise to a career. A school district spokesman insisted that Culver was retiring, not resigning, though Culver is only 56, and the district’s statement included this line: “Flagler Schools thanks Dr. Culver for his leadership and we wish him well in his future endeavors,” a line usually associated with a publicly friendly neutral that may not have been as simple.
Culver did not return a call to his cell phone by the time this article initially published.
But School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin confirmed that investigations had been conducted regarding the PTO’s finances at Belle Terre, and that a district investigation was ongoing regarding allegations of a toxic or hostile work environment at Belle Terre Elementary. Late last year, the school was also investigated internally and by a state agency over the handling of an autistic student’s discipline (two staffers’ contracts were not renewed after they were counseled; the state agency found no wrong-doing). In the last few days, the school again drew district attention over an alleged “kill list” that a student had drawn up. The student, who had reportedly been the target of bullying, was moved to a different classroom, and students were told not to talk about it, according to a parent (advice that would contradict the district’s and the sheriff’s office’s focus on “see something, say something.”)
Gavin said the school’s threat assessment team intervened, analyzed the situation and took the appropriate response.
A Flagler County Sheriff’s spokesperson said, referring to the school resource deputy at the school: “The SRD at Belle Terre Elementary was advised by school staff that law enforcement involvement was not necessary at the time of the initial contact and they were in the process of collecting information and conducting a threat assessment. The school conducted their threat assessment and determined the threat to be transient. School officials closed the incident and did not request any investigation by the FCSO. All further inquiries should be directed at the school administration.”
The investigation about the working environment was the result of more than one complaint. Asked how many complaints there were, Gavin said she could not say. “Not at this time because we still have individuals who may be coming forward,” she said. Gavin spoke on a speaker phone, with Tager and district spokesman Jason Wheeler in the room. “The investigation regarding that is concluding so I really can’t comment on that,” she said, offering the December time-frame about the time when it would be closed.
Asked if Culver was in any way pushed out as a result of the accumulating issues, Tager said: “All I could tell you at this point is that at this point the investigation is not concluded yet and I would tell you that Dr. Culver provided me with a letter stating he wished to retire, and I have read his letter and I have agreed to his retirement.” Tager the timing of the letter is not affected by the context. “I’m supporting what he wants to do.” Tager, who said he was not expecting Culver’s decision, then stressed: “I want to be clear, there’s no conversation and no push for him to be gone on my part, and that’s never been a part of my conversation. I support my principals and his choice to retire is his choice. Now, I accept what he’s doing, but that’s his choice, not mine.”
But Tager confirmed that Culver would not be returning to school, but rather using up accumulated personal time off until his official retirement date.
“He made the decision to submit a letter of retirement to the district,” Gavin said. “We can’t be in his mind as to why he made that decision.”
Regarding the PTO finances, Gavin said there had been some “concerns with whether or not all funds collected were deposited” in a PTO bank account. A parent familiar with the issue alleges that the financial misappropriations were a well-known matter throughout the school and the district, for years.
“It was investigated and looked into, documentation was provided to us as best as it could be because the PTO is not under the same red book requirement as our internal accounts,” Gavin said. “Yes, there might be irregularities there, but we couldn’t make a determination.” The sums that may have been misappropriated could not be determined. “It’s really hard to say because of the way they documented things.”
Tager said he will be working on finding a replacement for Culver over the next few days, with a decision likely by the end of the week following Thanksgiving. Names of possible successors that have been heard around the school include those of Travis Lee and Katrina Townsend.