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.
Wendell Massengill says
We are going after your pension culver…get ready. “Dokter”… For all of you that don’t know, felonies void your pension in Florida.
Kiss My Grits says
If you opt for the pension. There is always the other option.
Not surprised. Having worked there for several years, I’ve witness a lot of what’s included in the report. Hostile environment is putting it lightly. Thank goodness I left.
Why didn’t you report any of what you saw? Silence equals complicit. You’re a day late and a dollar short. I hope you don’t do this with the students as a mandated reporter. Work on your virtual classroom and hush Karen!
What makes you think I didn’t report any of what I saw?
Teachers have filed several reports. They get swept under the rug.
Weldon B. Ryan says
Wow! When the dog that you feed and pet bites you in the buttucks it’s a bitter reminder that that dog is still an animal. I can’t throw another brother under the bus. But! This old boy network seems certainly at work with unsubstantiate statements and claims written, gathered from reports about TC in this story . During the zero tolerance policy days at ITMS many black kids got caught up with minuchia making a route to Pathways inevitable! My son had BS issues with this but because my wife and I was present in his life and didn’t take the crap zero tolerance came with. We managed around the racial landminds laid for black boys. The jail to prison pipeline was and still is hungry. Jamaal and Juan wasn’t the same as James and Billy. But I couldn’t be there for other black children in a strong way. Many Black parents didn’t have as many options as we. The silver lining in regard to this is that I discovered the issue of unfair and disproportionate disciplinary suspensions in Flagler Co because of the treatment, some enforced by black men with positions of power to thwort this, in Flagler schools. Regardless this led me to create the West Flagler Raiders(Now defunct) with James Crockett and Larry Jone and my wife. All of this came before the Southern Poverty Law Group filing a lawsuit with regard to these suspensions which came to the forefront. I know TC’s heart is good but he lacked clarity of where he is with regard to systemic issues dealing with race. It’s unfortunate that TC has to experience the pile-on. So much of these allegations, from what I’ve read, is glossed over for his counterparts at Flagler schools and elsewhere.
When you cross certain boundaries you goto go. But once again a house of success seems to always crumble for a Black person when it stands on a foundation of the old boys network. I caution and say again “Don’t bite that apple!”.
Hes gone now consider the source. Fox guarding the hen house
This man was an amazing person. Showing up at my sons wake when we as a family were grieving. The school and his support made a huge difference I. Our grieving process. I would continue to support him in his next endeavor.
Sorry to break it to you but he probably only came because it looked good in his part.
He shows up to everything because it makes him look good.
former abused 6th grader says
This is a prime example of what comes around goes around. Back when I was just a little kid in 6th grade back at BTES, I was targeted by this man and his little “pet” Assistant dean. I was just a little 6th grade kid who among his peers excelled in many academics but was simply targeted because I stood out. I can remember times back in 6th grade where I was targeted and punishments against me were way harsher because of the color of my skin. Its been a pretty long time since I was a student at BTES but I can still remember times when my punishments were harsher then others and my times in the deans office were greatly increased. I would spend whole days in the deans office just because of some minor behavior issues. his assistant dean especially was one of the people that used to treat me like I was nothing and not even a human being. She would get in my face and yell at me, if I did all my work in the deans office I was forced to do work that was not required of me. Doctor Culver treated me differently than everyone else because of my skin color, I am beyond upset and disappointed that the school system would hire people like this, just very poor judgement. In 6th grade, I was sucker punched by a kid 0f color and didn’t even hit back but since both of them were racist against me I was suspended for 5 days and the other kid was never suspended. My parents had to be called out of work to come get me and they had to talk to these two racists in the principles office. I wish this would’ve went down a lot sooner because this man was definitely not the “man” he showed and pretended to be. He was a person of disguise and showed a lot of fake emotions and personas to not only me as a student but to also teachers that worked there and quit because of him. If this doesn’t show a prime example of racism, bullying and emotionally abusing a kid then I don’t know what is.
Ford Upson says
@former abused 6th grader,
Let me just say, I’m so sorry you had to go through this from this moron.
Receiving a television for agreeing to continue utilizing the services of a vendor is highly unethical, and probably illegal in a government setting. I know at my company this is hammered into us every year; you cannot accept gifts in exchange for doing business. Then he took the TV, which supposedly belonged to the P.T.O. and he gabe it to some one who is down on their luck? That is unbelievable. Why not just give away a school vehicle to some one “down on their luck?” Letting your daughter raise 800 plus bucks using apples paid for by the school is shocking. Could other kids in the school raise money for their own causes? Probably not, and for good reason. He should have been fired, and long ago.
What nonsense says
It’s a bunch of Karen’s with nothing better to do. These so called whistle whatever are all women who have been called out on there bull; from falsifying their FMLA and working somewhere else; ineffective teaching with horrible classroom manner; setting him up with apples the same so-called secretary offered to get him then uses it as a smear campaign. Along with all of her abuses of her own position while pretending to be decent. The kettle calling the pot black when it’s known that one of the PTO top member has a Walmart retail theft charge themselves. Wake up people; the whistleblowers are all people looking for revenge instead of taking responsibility for the bull they got check on initial!! Just a load of crock. Whose done there research on these people who have so called been victimized; I bet if you dig a little you would be surprised with what you find!
You are so on point! If you just research them a little bit you will find retail theft charges, fraudulent check charges, domestic violence charges and even contributing to the delinquency of a minor charge. It’s all public record. But these are the upstanding characteristics of the so called “whistle Blowers.” Get the heck out of here KARENS!
Not a Karen says
Yes, by all means, dig a little deeper! In fact dig back far enough to examine the sexual harassment claims that were filed against Culver and buried by the head of HR. I’m sure the teachers and cafeteria workers felt ‘really supported’ by the district before the Me Too movement became fashionable.
Kiss My Grits says
If I understand this correctly, it sounds like Dr. Culver would be the only person male or female to be accused of sexual harassment in this county. What about the bus driver? What about…ohhhh yes, Flagler County School Board is rife with systemic racism not everyone’s charges are not treated the same. BLM
Current Teacher at BTES says
As a current Educator at BTES (5th grade), I am very appalled as to how ones reputation is trying to be destroyed by this witch hunt? Dr. Culver is one of the 1st ones to get to school and greet all of us, and he is the last one to leave, again wishing us safe travels. So let me get this correct, a mild mannered, low keyed, say what he means, and mean what he says person is accused of sexual harassment? So it was okay for him to spend his personal money to celebrate Nurse’s Week and Administrative Professional Day. I find it interesting that for as long as I can remember we have had steak and chicken at our luncheons, but now it was hamburger and hotdogs by one who have a record for theft? Pictures don’t lie what was on the menu. Oh, there was missing money from a candy sale in Mrs. Cooke’s class, but Katrina did a good job covering that up. Can someone please check Katrina’s personnel record, you would find out that she was demoted from her position in the district office for undermining her boss, and now she has done the same to Dr. Culver. As for the candy apples, Katrina did you forgot that Dr. Culver contributed $300 to the 5K run, ( funds from the sell). . Everyone who works in the school system knows that the Principal does not get involved in the PTO financial account. On any job you work on, the boss have favorites, but that does not mean there is anything inappropriately going on. Dr. Culver always talked about his wife and family. So get out of here with your wayward thinking. Why cant a nice man hold a decent conversation without being sexual? Also, when does a principal pay for the an activity when they are going to represent their school? I know of several that don’t pay when they go to represent their school. It saddens me to know that this was a way to prevent the District from awarding Dr. Culver Principal of the Year in which he richly deserved.
Dr. Culver, we are planning the Retirement Party that we owe you. You are a legend and thank you for everything! By the way, Tristan. thank you for exposing who the whistleblowers are.
Wow! What a joke! You need to start paying attention at BTMS. Dr.Culver was a horrible principal. He treated certain people better than everyone else. For example: crystal apples- just think about who they went to first. He fired good teachers for no reason. He did not handle things correctly. A lot of things were swept under the rug. I reported a few things that were not dealt with. He didn’t want the school or himself to look bad.
Concerns Employee says
As a concerned employee at BTES. I must admit that Janet Mcdonald attended the Orlando magic game and did not have a concern. I have told the district & ms Gavin that Abbey, Sue, and KT was asking teachers to lie and nobody would do it. Why wasn’t that stated in the final report.
@ concerned employee – A picture is worth a thousand words…do you have one? I would love to see.
I worked for this man back in the day at ITMS. He was a pompous blowhard that took advantage of his position of power. He berated teachers if they questioned him and generally had no clue what was going on in his school. Example – One day, I had to have a sub in for medical reasons. I returned at the end of the day to pick up student work and check the sub’s note. My classroom was destroyed and good old TC called me into his office to yell at me for it. I told him how it was, but felt he held a grudge against me from that day on and never felt comfortable around him. So there’s my two cents.
Yet another Teacher says
I never had that experience while working for him. Quite the opposite. There’s my two cents.
Bibi Taylor says
Yes, the day’s of the Good Ole Boy’s picnic lynching is underground.; now replaced with the Flagler County Karen’s “knee” on a Black Man’s jugular. “Ain’t You Got No Shame?” NO! You don’t! Is it because you failed to take advantage of your “white” privilege and thus you despise having to report to a Black Person, particularly if it’s a well educated BLACK MAN? Your allegations to harm Dr. Culver’s reputation and demean his character personifies your disdain for Black, Brown [or any minority persons] of color. Dr. Culver was [is] a task master who challenged his subordinates to live up to the standards established for excellence in educational attainment; The “proof is in the pudding” as reflected in the high rating achieved at each school where he was in a leadership position. His style may have provoked those who resented being called to task for not meeting those standards. [In my opinion] the “Karens” in Flagler County who want to “MAKE AMERICA…White” AGAIN”. and want to dismiss the hard earned progress Black Men like Dr. Culver and highly educated minority persons, in Flagler County have achieved yet have contend with racist demonic souls like the Karen’s of Flagler County. There is a place for satan’s disciples. “Karens” may you join the “knee to the jugular’ ‘perpetrators and reside there.
Great. Let’s make this black and white instead of right and wrong.