Fort Pierce passes resolution approving the issuance of tax-exempt private activity bonds for purchase

FORT PIERCE – The City Commission voted unanimously Aug. 19 to approve the issuance of $8.5 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds to facilitate the purchase of the vacant Virginia College building on U.S. 1 by St. James Christian Academy, now operating as Florida State Christian Academy.

The Academy began leasing the building last year and launched its new school year Aug. 12 in the new facility. According to City Clerk Linda Cox, the move was simply a formality to facilitate the upcoming closing on the building.

“This is a public hearing requirement for bonds that they need to be issued, and the city simply has to approve them to move forward and there’s no obligation,” she told the Board.

The parent company of Virginia College, Education Corporation of America, shuttered the campus last December as part of some 70-plus campuses it closed across the nation, citing more stringent Department of Education requirements and its loss of accreditation. As a result, St. James Academy will purchase a building still filled with cutting-edge technology the company invested in prior to its grand opening to much fanfare in 2014

For her part, Mayor Linda Hudson wanted more assurances from the city clerk that Fort Pierce would not be put in a compromising situation with the passage of an resolution backing the bond request.

“We have to have a public hearing, but it really has nothing to do with us, it has to do with them?” the former said. “There’s no financial obligation for us at all?”

“No,” Ms. Cox responded.

“That’s really important,” Mayor Hudson affirmed.

Florida State Christian Academy representative Jason Mittler, along with Headmaster and co-owner Dr. Donnelyn Khourie, then provided a brief historical overview of the school as part of their request, which has served students in the area for nearly two decades.

“We’re proud to be the only state accredited Christian school in St. Lucie County for providing pre-school through 12th grade with a unique blend of traditional education with modern techniques,” the former said. “Our mission is to raise up young people who’ll be leaders in their chosen profession, so they can make an impact on our city, our state and our nation. St. James Christian Academy offers classes designed to help develop children intellectually, socially and spiritually.”

Mr. Mittler particularly emphasized the pristine condition of the former educational institution located at 2810 U.S. 1 in Fort Pierce and now known as the Synergy School of Tomorrow campus.

“The building and its contents are in top condition and provides a turn-key opportunity for the community,” he added. “The opportunity includes vocation training to middle- and high-school students. The 76,000-square-foot facility provides ample room for us to grow. Due to the nature of the service the Virginia College was providing, we have facilities and equipment to educate the students in the areas of pre-med, culinary, cyber-coding and cosmetology.”

Florida State Christian Academy offers dual-enrollment and Advanced Placement classes to its students in conjunction with Indian River State College, allowing those who opt for the rigorous program to graduate simultaneous with a high school diploma and an associate's degree or certifications in a number of technical trades.

“Our middle- and high-school students are offered pathways to sample in order to determine their future before college,” Mr. Mittler added as he highlighted recent additions to the curriculum. “Indian River State College is now enrolling classes at our Synergy Campus as a pilot program, which in essence makes Synergy an additional campus to the public. IRSC and St. James Christian Academy are partnering to provide dual enrollment in industrial art classes to St. Lucie County. The joint-articulation agreement also includes evening classes and certification courses now offered at the Synergy School of Tomorrow.”

After Mr. Mittler finished his presentation, Commissioner Reginald Sessions wanted to know what percentage of students the school culled from Fort Pierce itself and whether scholarships were provided to students with limited financial resources.

“Do you provide scholarships and to what extent?” he asked. “Could you elaborate a little bit on that?”

“There’s many different types of scholarships: Step Ups, McKay and special needs,” he answered. “Many students and families that we serve are considered below the poverty line, and our education services provides opportunities that were not always allowable for this financial demographic. Since 2001, when Florida lawmakers approved the Florida Tax Scholarship – also known as Step Up For Students – St. James Christian Academy has been able to utilize this amazing program. This program helps low-income, at-risk families be able to receive a private-school education for their children.”

Dr. Khourie also emphasized the importance of the scholarships and described an incident with a parent who recently toured the new campus.

“The majority of ours is the low-income bracket, and I’m so happy to be able to provide it,” she said of the scholarships. “Some parents came and toured the other day. They had signed up, and [as] they were leaving, I said where are you going? And she said ‘we can’t afford this.’ They thought it was going to be more money on top, and I said no, no, no, you don’t understand; this is for you – scholarship covers this. She then began to cry.”

Commissioner Thomas Perona still remained 100 percent convinced the city was not obligating itself financially with the resolution and asked City Attorney Pete Sweeney to opine on the matter.

“Mr. Sweeney, please weigh in and make me feel extremely comfortable that there’s no liability to the City of Fort Pierce on this,” he said.

The city attorney said that prior to the school’s current request he had been ignorant of tax-exempt private activity bond proceedings but insisted Fort Pierce would have “absolutely no obligation whatsoever” with the approval.

“Ms. Cox and I initially received this approximately two and a half weeks ago via email on behalf of the Academy through some of their partners, as far as utilizing this federal tax act to be able to issue these bonds,” he explained. “I didn’t know what they were at the time – I had no idea. But in conjunction with working with Ms. Cox and our outside bond counsel Mike Williams – who just recently helped us place approximately $27 million [in] refunding bonding – I felt very comfortable. This was an absolutely routine, and the only reason why we’re even involved is because every time one of these happens, the local public agency – in this case Fort Pierce – has to hold a public hearing just to provide the public forum.”

Mr. Sweeney’s response satisfied the commissioner, who admitted he had attended the grand opening of the now defunct Virginia College campus.

“I’m extremely happy,” Commissioner Perona said. “This was a vacant piece of property. It seems like what you propose is something that’s sustainable that can last a long time, and I think that it’s a great place, a great opportunity for you and it’s a great opportunity for the City of Fort Pierce, too.”

Mayor Hudson also expressed her contentment.

“Well, it’s a wonderful facility that Virginia College built, and it’s so wonderful that now you can use it for all of the same kind of purposes with high-school students,” she exclaimed.

Mr. Mittler also expressed satisfaction with the plan to occupy the old Virginia College property, which comes with all the high-tech apparatus initially purchased by the parent company of the institution.

“We own all the contents, so exactly the way that Virginia College looked is exactly the way it looks now, but we’ve put our own little spin on various things and added a few things,” he said. “We actually had a representative from another college -- and I’m not going to say the name, but she does medical and is one of the department heads – and she said, ‘you guys got three of these? We got one.' And I said yes, and that’s for our sixth through 12th grade students.”

Commissioner Perona subsequently made the motion to approve the resolution, which was seconded by Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson and passed unanimously.

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