The St. Johns County School District assumed administrative and operational control of First Coast Technical College (FCTC) July 1, ending a troubled period in the charter school’s history and initiating a new chapter for its students and staff.
Interim Principal Cathy Mittelstadt – who most recently served as the school district’s associate superintendent for support services – said she and her team have been working since July 1 to review the college’s operations, facilities and curriculum.
“We don’t look at it as a takeover – it’s really a transition back to the St. Johns County School District,” said Mittelstadt, noting that prior to becoming a charter school FCTC was a district school known as St. Augustine Technical Center. “It’s also important to note that we do serve the tri-county area, working with Clay County and Putnam County.”
One change resulting from the transition back to a district school, Mittelstadt confirmed, is the closure of the college’s existing Clay County location. At the June 15 meeting of the St. Johns County School Board, Superintendent Dr. Joseph Joyner said FCTC’s long-term, $10,000 a month facilities lease in Clay County was an expense the district chose not to assume as part of the transition.
“We did not feel like, based on the (Clay County) enrollment, that we could continue that lease,” Joyner told school board members. “We cannot create a liability for this school system when we just cut $3.1 million from our own school budget.”
Both Joyner and Mittelstadt stressed, however, that the district plans to find another location in the future for Clay County programs. In the meantime, Mittelstadt said, students who were enrolled in programs in Clay County have transferred to the St. Johns and Putnam campuses, where classes are set to begin Aug. 10.
“There’s a lot of excitement and new opportunities,” Mittelstadt said. “Things are definitely moving forward.”
The St. Johns County School District stepped in and assumed control of FCTC after the charter school became the focus of multiple investigations regarding the administration of student testing as well as alleged financial irregularities. At the SJC school board’s June 15 meeting, board attorney Frank Upchurch outlined the chain of events that led the district to assume control.
According to Upchurch, in late April School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Joyner notified FCTC Board Chair Carol Alford that after receiving a complaint, the school district – which through the college’s charter had oversight of the institution – would be launching an investigation into the testing allegations. Later that week, however, a routine monthly review of the college’s financial statement raised additional concerns.
“It revealed that the school’s fund balance had been reduced by over half a million dollars in March,” Upchurch said.
The school district sent a second letter to Alford May 3 that served as a “formal notice of financial deteriorating condition” as required by law. In the letter, Joyner noted that in addition to the fund balance dropping by more than $830,000 in one month, the college was believed to have unpaid outstanding bills of more than $600,000.
After conducting a thorough investigation with the college’s cooperation, Joyner said, on May 26 the school district notified Alford and Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart that the college’s deteriorating finances had reached the point of a financial emergency. He suggested that the only viable option was for the college to terminate its charter and allow the school board to assume control of the college.
On June 8, FCTC President Sandra Fortner – who had been placed on paid administrative leave – resigned her position effective immediately. The college’s board subsequently voted June 14 to terminate its charter and return control of the college to the St. Johns County School District. The next day, the St. Johns County School Board voted unanimously to accept FCTC’s charter termination and assume control effective July 1.
School board member Patrick Canan expressed his belief that the college’s unique charter relationship with the public school district – one of just two such arrangements in the state – gave the district little choice but to assume control of the college.
“I hope this is a teachable moment,” he said at the board meeting. “(FCTC) had their own board, their own staff, they were running the whole show and now I feel like we’re in a position like we’re going to try to clean up the mess.”
Joyner was more optimistic. In a meeting with FCTC faculty and staff held the day the school district assumed control, he said, “I could not be more excited for the opportunity to serve our community in the area of postsecondary education.”