Belle Terre Elementary Principal Terence Culver is under criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement following reports by whistle-blowers and the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization that Culver allegedly skimmed off funds from the PTO and the school’s administrative account between 2016 and this year.
Culver is not the only suspect: a Flagler County Sheriff’s report about the allegations lists three suspects. It also lists eight witnesses. The report redacts the names of all the suspects and the witnesses, as well as the bulk of the narrative outlining the allegations. The case was turned over to the FDLE today, a sheriff’s spokesperson said, after the state agency agreed to take on the case.
Culver abruptly tendered his “retirement” letter to Superintendent Jim Tager on Nov. 20. The district announced the move five days later, characterizing it as a retirement as Tager insisted that there had been no expectation that Culver retire, or that he was forced to resign. But Tager also said that Culver would no longer return to campus. He was officially to remain the principal until early January, but only because he has accumulated personal and vacation time that he would be burning off between now and then.
The district today announced the appointment of Jessica DeFord, an assistant principal at Belle Terre Elementary, as the school’s interim principal. It appears that the only reason she was not named the permanent principal was due to Culver still being, officially, the principal. But the district’s announcement about DeFord was written as if she were the new principal, and tellingly contrasted with the district’s announcement about Culver’s “retirement,” which had been terse and void of any statements from the superintendent.
“Jessica is ready to step in and lead Belle Terre Elementary, continuing the high academic standards and success there,” Tager said regarding DeFord. “I am confident she will serve the district well, focusing on academic excellence for all students through a culture of caring.”
DeFord, an assistant principal at Belle Terre since 2016 and a Flagler district employee since 2013, was said to be “ready to step into this larger leadership role in one of Flagler County’s largest elementary schools,” removing most doubts that she would be the permanent choice there. She’s taught in Brevard and Putnam counties previously.
The announcement also appears to have coincided with the passing of a deadline that concerned Culver. He was facing a deadline from the district this week, by which time he could answer the allegations against him, though the people familiar with the case suggest that the understanding between Culver and the district was that he would not challenge anything. The district did not seek out the criminal investigation, accepting the “retirement” instead.
The criminal aspect of the case began last week after current PTO President Jennifer Leigh Paterno and others met with a sheriff’s detective in Flagler Beach, at attorney Stephen Furnari’s office, and provided information outlining the allegations. Furnari was at the origin of a formal complaint filed with School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin. It was that complaint, based on extensive documentation and the affidavits of several whistleblowers, that kicked off the district’s internal investigation over the past few weeks, leading to Culver’s decision. Furnari explained last week why he filed the complaint, listing several issues under Culver’s watch. Those issues included allegations of misappropriation of funds, sexual harassment, discrimination, nepotism, defamation and other issues, according to Furnari’s account.
Culver’s school had been the focus of a series of issues, two of them separate incidents involving two different autistic children that implicated the school’s discipline and safety protocols. Two employees who were disciplined in one case–which took place last year–were not re-employed this year.
The FDLE’s investigation focuses only on the allegations of thefts of money from the PTO and administrative accounts. The school’s administrative account drew revenue from the school’s fund-raising as well and pays for expenses such as employee appreciation. The amounts alleged to have been unaccounted for are between $5,000 and $10,000. PTO volunteers had noticed the irregularities after seeing discrepancies between what PTO activities’ revenue was generating and what was ending up in the PTO bank account.
Discrepancies were noticed, for example, around the PTO’s annual holiday shop, which enabled students to buy gifts. The vendor by contract would provide perks to the PTO in the form of a flat-screen television, a computer and $300 a year in merchandise that would not be billed to the PTO, but could be raffled off to low-income children as gifts. But for two years the PTO was not aware that those perks were part of the contract with the vendor. There were other issues involving the PTO’s or the administrative account’s bank cards and spending for such things as the teacher-appreciation cook-out–when receipts showed Culver allegedly buying items that never made it to the cookout.
The district’s announcement about DeFord today did not mention the investigations–its own or those of the sheriff’s office or FDLE–just as it had kept silent about issues surrounding Culver in the retirement announcement last month. Today’s announcement mentioned Culver only to the extent that “DeFord steps in following” his retirement.