Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

County/N. FL News

Aviation Academy Crash Lands: North Central FL's Rural Poor Take It On the Chin, Again 

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –On June 30, 2018, your reporter filed a public records request with the following agencies: the Columbia County School District, Florida Gateway College, CareerSource Florida Crown, North Central FL Regional Planning Council, Columbia County Economic Development, and the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP). The request was for the Mission Statement of the High School Aviation Academy. All agencies responded with exception of the NFEDP. The response: there was "none."

Background: A Vision and a Mission

In 2015, the North East FL Educational Consortium (NEFEC) was tasked to create the Tri-County Aviation Maintenance Academy. The partners included the Columbia, Hamilton, and Union County School Districts, HAECO Americas, The Columbia County 5, and the Foundation for Rural Educational Excellence.

The Vision-Mission statement of the Tri-County Academy was clear and unequivocal:

"The vision of the Tri-County Aviation Maintenance Academy is to provide students in Columbia, Hamilton, and Union Counties an opportunity to learn about the aviation maintenance industry with hands-on experiences through innovative curriculum and learning opportunities. The Academy will introduce students to the world of aviation and aviation maintenance. The curriculum provides hands on training that enables the student to develop basic entry level skills for employment as an airframe structures technician at FAA repair stations."

In the beginning, it was estimated that the student mix would be: Columbia 40, Hamilton 10, and Union 10. Three groups of 20 students would rotate through the aviation class, math class, and a virtual lab during the school day.

To run the program Ralph Zahnle, Jr., a Professor of the Aviation Maintenance Technician Program at FL State College at Jacksonville was hired. Mr. Zahnle was a licensed pilot, certified and licensed A&P mechanic, and held every aviation license imaginable.

Ralph Zahnle Speaks

Sixteen months ago, as the Aviation Academy was imploding, your reporter spoke with Mr. Zahnle, who by that time had left the Academy. The conversation was wide ranging, however, with the recent $860k grant award to FGC to establish an Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) licensed school at the college Mr. Zahnle's cost estimate to establish the school is timely.

Your reporter asked, "How much would it cost to establish the school?"

Mr. Zahnle answered, "$3 million would maybe get you started. You really need $5-$7 million. It's very expensive to set up vocational training, especially aviation. They [FGC] don't have a building large enough to do it."

Mr. Zahnle explained that FAA pre-application phase is 1 to 3 years and "even if they wanted to its 5 to 7 years out."

Once Mr. Zahnle left the program it imploded and the school district lost its major calling card, Ralph Zahnle.

The district floundered around; got grants to acquire non-FAA approved flight simulators to attract students into the program; hired a history teacher to run the program; couldn't keep track of its students (eventually they may have); shut down the program.

In 2016 School Superintendent Terry Huddleston lost his bid for reelection and Lex Carswell became the District Superintendent.

Columbia County's Lake City Tri-County Aviation Academy (workshop). Also are 3 portable one-room buildings used as classrooms.

Superintendent Lex Carswell Speaks

On May 30, 2018, the Governor's Office announced that FGC received an $860k grant "to enhance current workforce training programs for Aviation Powerplant Mechanics and Aviation Airframe Maintenance to fill a statewide need."

Late the following day, your reporter spoke with Columbia County School Superintendent Lex Carswell. He was frank and honest.

Regarding the Aviation Academy, Supt. Carswell said, "All we are producing out there is HAECO ready employees. I found out about a month ago that the college is in line to get a grant."

According to Supt. Carswell, involved in the Aviation Academy are the School District, the City, the County, HAECO, and the College. Those are all the entities involved "as we have been rolling along the last two or three years. All of those people had something to do with it. We had a lot of people involved."

Your reporter asked, "Is that like too many cooks spoil the broth?"

Supt. Carswell laughed, "Those are your words. I just know that we had a lot of people involved."

"We were spending money providing a teacher out there for kids to go there and do core class work before they took the aviation class. Next year we're keeping the core classes at the high school and we're sending kids out there just to take the two hour aviation academy."

Your reporter: "In the beginning, when Ralph Zahnle was there, the Aviation Academy was sort of working?"

Supt. Carswell: "We were spending a lot of money on it. The only thing we were getting out of it was a limited number of kids that persued a higher level aviation degree out of it. In the last couple of years, since I've been in office, all we've been producing is HAECO ready employees."

Your reporter followed up, "So if I have this right, the whole purpose of the Aviation Academy is to make the students HAECO ready."

Supt. Carswell answered, "Currently. Now."

Former HAECO VP Kip Blakely (left) in a pensive moment as he addressed the Lake City Chamber of Commerce about HAECO and its workforce problems in Columbia County. Right frame (left to rt): Chamber Executive Dir. Dennille Decker, City Manager Johnson, FGC President Larry Barrett.

A Stand-Alone High School

Supt. Carswell continued, "We mentioned the grant the college has got. We are going to partner with the College through this planning phase, because we want to build it [Aviation Academy] back so that the idea I think will be to have a stand-alone high school and a couple of hundred kids out there that are all feeding into the college's A&P program."

Your reporter followed up, "We don't know if the college is going to get the A&P program."

Supt. Carswell said, "Right. That's why we're scaling back at the high school. We are waiting to see what happens out at the college. We're talking about a year or two of planning. I think the whole aviation academy needs to be planned better than what we were doing. This allows us to fit the needs of the kids that want to go to work at HAECO. But it give us and Dr. Barrett, and all those other entities, because they are still going to be involved, a chance to plan and maybe roll this thing out again the way it needs to be rolled out. That's it in a nut shell."

Supt. Carswell added, "$875,000 won't buy enough equipment to do anything for aviation. It's going to be millions of dollars to buy jet stuff."

A Backup Plan?

Your reporter asked, "Is there a backup plan or fall back plan for this aviation stuff?"

Supt. Carswell answered, "As we plan to have it next year, we're spending very little money... The long term plan as I see it right now is to continue to offer HAECO ready skills so that we can continue to have a viable option for kids to get a higher than minimum wage job somewhere in Columbia County."

In July 2016, while at the Farnborough Air Show in London, "Governor Scott announced that HAECO will be expanding in Lake City and creating 400 new jobs. This project will bring a $2 million capital investment to Columbia County." [from the Governor's press release].

Your reporter followed up, "You do realize that after the Governor announced that 400 jobs were coming to Columbia County, all those jobs went to N. Carolina and the capital investment never happened?"

Supt. Carswell responded, "And that's why you see the college and us taking a step back to see what's going to happen after November."

Finally: The Mission Statement

Your reporter asked, "How could you have a mission and not have a mission statement?"

Supt. Carswell answered, "We don't really have a mission statement, but we have a purpose."

Your reporter followed up, "The mission comes from the mission statement. Now you've changed your mission, what was the original mission? Nobody knows?"

Supt. Carswell answered, "Well, the original mission was in Terry Huddleston's [former Supt.] mind. So you have to ask him. But the forward mission that we are going to have next year is to get kids HAECO ready to go to work."

There was a mission statement. Nobody could find it.


The Columbia County School District serves about 10,000 students. While the district waits for FGC to figure out what to do with a grant that doesn't provide nearly enough funding to establish a licensed A&P program, the School Board, the Administrators, the folks at the College, the folks at the City, the County 5, the Governor and everybody else that feeds from the public trough will get paid, while the area's rural poor will continue to take it on the chin.

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.


Related Articles: