Terence Culver, the former principal at Belle Terre Elementary, was known as a charismatic leader who kept his school top rated most years, as a man beloved in the Belle Terre community and inspiring to volunteers at the school, whose annual African-American Read-Ins became one of Culver’s signature achievements.
Behind the scenes and for as far back as the 2015-016 school year, it’s a different story.
Culver had once accused his attendance clerk of faking an injury, ordered her to keep her office door closed and forbade her from taking lunch with colleagues. He called a member of the Parent-Teacher Organization a “cancer” on the organization. He made “racial remarks” and “inappropriate sexual comments about parents” behind their back. He bragged to one teacher that his negative reference kept her from getting a job in St. Johns County. He appropriated for himself and his family food, concessions and gifts meant for the PTO, including tickets to the Jaguars and the Magic. He used federal funds to buy apples so his daughter could conduct a personal fund-raiser for a twirling competition unrelated to Belle Terre. He told one employee seeking a transfer through Earl Johnson, a top administrator at the district, that he and Johnson had been in the same fraternity, and that any complaints to Johnson wouldn’t get anywhere. He played favorites. He followed some school policies but not others.
That’s how Belle Terre Elementary employees and PTO members described working or volunteering with Culver to a Flagler County school district investigator, according to the final investigative report into allegations of misconduct by Culver. The report was concluded earlier this spring. The district’s investigation sustained a series of claims against Culver, including the misuse of federal dollars, inappropriately accepting gifts, dishonesty, and “creating a hostile work environment.”
Culver, through his attorney, denied the allegations in a letter to the district. Culver “did not commit any violation of the law, school board policy or professional standards of conduct,” Grady Irvin, Culver’s attorney, wrote the district on March 2, warning that if the investigation were to proceed, the district would be vulnerable to “civil litigation for negligence and for compensatory and punitive damages for [the district’s] complicity in damage to the reputation of Dr. Culver.”
On the other hand, Irvin offered more than three pages of retorts to be included in the final investigative report, should the investigation continue. It did. The retorts deny the allegations point by point. (See the full letter in the embedded report below.) Culver, Irvin noted in one instance refuting the claim that Culver had misused Magic tickets, “provided sufficient information to the investigator that he was a chaperone for the event, and furthermore, appropriately reported the ticket to the appropriate persons.”
Gavin’s report puts it differently: “Culver admitted he accepted tickets to the Magic game from the PTO where there are parents on the Board. This acceptance creates an appearance of favoritism and could be seen as impacting professional judgment.” And while Culver did eventually report the gifts, he did so only after Gavin reminded him of the requirement, and beyond the time window when the reporting was required.
The allegations against Culver led to a complaint filed with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and a subsequent Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. An FDLE spokesperson said Wednesday the investigation was ongoing.
The school district’s final investigation report was filed in mid-April, with no further action taken against Culver. He resigned in January and left the school after the allegations came to light in late September. School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin conducted the investigation without the involvement of other district personnel, as complainants had feared for the investigation’s impartiality. Gavin did so through more than a dozen interviews with faculty and staff at Belle Terre, many of them involved in the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, or PTO. Some of the interviews were at the request of Culver’s attorney.
The investigation focused on Culver’s handling–and alleged embezzlement–of PTO funds, his management style, his personal conduct at work, and allegations of nepotism. The allegations have been reported before, but the investigative report provides far more detail, through the testimonies of those involved, than previously known, or available.
For example, when the school district announced Culver’s resignation, it did not say anything about the allegations or the investigations the allegations had triggered. The district announced Culver’s retirement in a neutrally toned but brief, three-paragraph press release on November 25, with the line: Flagler Schools thanks Dr. Culver for his leadership and we wish him well in his future endeavors.” In fact, Superintendent Jim Tager and Gavin had met with Culver a week earlier and confronted him with the allegations against him. Two days later, Culver submitted his letter of resignation, a cheery if brief recap of his achievements, among them six years of A ratings at Belle Terre. There was no mention of a reason for his resignation. FlaglerLive first reported on the district’s investigation the day of his resignation after the district acknowledged the issue in interviews.
The seriousness of the issue, from the district’s perspective, was left unsaid in its press release, but was nevertheless clear: Though he was to retire in January, Culver was no longer to be on campus, and an interim principal was hastily appointed.
The allegations were brought forth through a “citizen’s complaint” on Sept. 24 by Stephen Furnari, a Flagler Beach attorney who heads the volunteer district advisory board on exceptional student education, and who facilitated some of the interviews with Gavin. “The Complaint contained an aggregation of allegations made to me by several district employees and volunteers through the course of my investigation of the work culture at BTES following a highly publicized incident involving the alleged abuse of a student with autism,” Furnari wrote. Last year, an education advocate brought to light an allegation of inappropriate use of seclusion involving an autistic student. Reprimands and resignations of certain staffers involved followed. The incident did not touch Culver, but proved a trigger for the subsequent allegations that did.
Irvin–Culver’s attorney–has contested the involvement of Furnari and his wife, Kristi Furnari, saying the organization of which they’re a part, Flagler Exceptional Student Education Advocates, has no “legal standing to bring a complaint against any past or present employee of the Flagler County Public Schools,” though of course the Furnaris did not file a legal pleading through court, but what amounts to the sort of complaint anyone may file with the school district, including anonymous complaints, to alert officials of possible problems. The difference with the Furnaris’ complaint is that it relied on the accounts of several named individuals citing specific issues, as Gavin then documented for the district’s own investigation.
For example, Stacy Geiger, a former PTO secretary, told Gavin the PTO “had the appearance under the leadership of former President Jennifer Harris that the group was operating as a slush fund for the Principal as opposed to the PTO functioning to serve the needs of the school and the students attending the school.” The PTO was run and money spent without formal votes, and Geiger’s tenure was cut short “due to the disparaging comments made by Dr. Culver to her.” At one meeting, Geiger told Gavin, Culver “stated how terrible she was because now other parents were beginning to question things. She stated that he began yelling at her and said she was a cancer and he could dismantle the PTO at any time if that was what she wanted.”
PTO President Jennifer Paterno, who previously explained in these pages why she decided to address what she saw as “evidence of wrongdoing,” had met with Gavin on Sept. 30, providing bank statements and PTO balance sheets for three years, and explaining how the school’s holiday gift shop was run: she had detected discrepancies between markups on products sold and actual amounts deposited deposited. “At this time, although the documentation appears to reflect not all funds received for fundraising activities being deposited into the bank,” Gavin’s report states, “it cannot be determined whether there was any mismanagement of the funds by Dr. Culver.” But the investigation found that Culver had taken a television the PTO bought with PTO funds and given it to the father of a student without going through approval procedures.
Culver’s then-secretary, Susan Guarino, told Gavin of what she considered financial improprieties, including the way Culver kept PTO bags of cash in his desk, rather than turning it all to the bookkeeper within 24 hours. There was a break-in at the school in the 2018-19 school year, when Culver ordered her to check his desk drawers to ensure that the money was still there. “Had funds been placed in the vault this would not have been a concern,” the investigation states.
“Guarino also questioned whether all of the purchases made at Sam’s Club were given to the school,” the report continues. “On several occasions she observed cases of soda being placed into former PTO President Jennifer Harris or Dr. Culver’s vehicle. She advised that for the 2018 teacher appreciation there were gift bags that she witnessed Dr. Culver remove approximately 10 bags to take home to his family. She also indicated that the end of the year dance for May, 2018 no funds were ever deposited from the concession. This was confirmed by reviewing both the PTO and the Internal Account bank accounts that a deposit for this fund raiser was never made.”
A recurring matter that rankled several of those interviewed: Culver allowed his daughter to sell apples at the school for a fund-raiser, though personal fundraisers of the sort are not allowed at the school. Culver eventually paid for the apples.
Katrina Feola, another employee, said Culver had a “generous component to him, but that if he was not in a good mood it was not a pleasant work environment. She has observed him berate staff during staff meetings. It would start off pleasant and then he would start yelling and calling someone out and the individual would occasionally be seen in tears by the end of the meeting. She gave the example of teacher Rocky Jackson being given the crystal apple award. Dr. Culver was praising him for his achievements and indicated one of his black brothers was receiving the award but concluded with the negative comment of ‘he better be sure to get to work on time.’”
It was Feola who’d contacted Johnson, the district’s director of leadership development and a de facto deputy superintendent, to request a transfer. Culver, she told Gavin, “had favorite employees that were treated different from others. She was not a favorite employee, she was not a part of the click. He advised her if she did not attend the hour admin. lunches that she was not a team player.”
In her conclusions, Gavin found that Culver had violated school board policy by using institutional privileges for personal gain or advantage, through the candy apple sale going back to December 2017: “Specifically, Federal funds were used to purchase apples that were then used to create the candy apples. There were 2 cases of apples purchased through the school cafeteria. Federal dollars were used for the purchase of those apples. The apples were then sold to students, faculty and staff. A list of apples purchased was provided for he December sale. Dr. Culver acknowledged apples were secured from the cafeteria for the candy apple fundraiser. He also confirmed that the fundraiser was neither for the PTO nor for the school’s internal account. Instead, he advised the proceeds from the sales went to his daughter to fund a twirling competition. The use of federal funds for personal reasons is strictly prohibited.”
The investigation concluded that Culver keeping money in his office rather than turning it over to bookeeping was inappropriate and created “an appearance of questionable dealings taking place.” But the report also notes that “due to the PTO’s procedures it cannot be determined whether any funds were taken.” The investigation revealed Belle Terre was the only school to be flagged by auditors in four areas of concern, all finance related.
Finally, the investigation found, “Based on the statements of witnesses interviewed it appears statements and or actions made by Dr. Culver may have been perceived as creating a hostile work environment. There appears to be the perception that some teachers and administrators are given preferential treatment over others.”
Several of the individuals Culver’s attorney asked Gavin to interview spoke highly of Culver, of his dedication to students, of his support as an administrator and of a sound work environment.
The full report, including Irvin’s response, is below.