Director ordered to leave Oldsmar daycare as city moves to evict her
By Lorri Helfand, Times Staff Writer
OLDSMAR — On Monday, the director of an Oldsmar day care center said she was staying put.
She's nine months behind on her rent and her landlord, which happens to be the city of Oldsmar, is trying to evict Jean Fatmatta Nicholas.
"I guess the court will decide what's going to happen," said Nicholas, 46, manager of the Oldsmar Learning Center, who was standing near the doorway of the center as children giggled and screamed inside.
But as of Thursday afternoon, Nicholas is no longer the director. Because of her background, she can't even be on site when kids are there.
Nicholas pleaded guilty to grand theft two years ago. And officials who regulate child care centers learned about her brush with the law after the St. Petersburg Times inquired about Nicholas' criminal history.
Meanwhile, it may take weeks to resolve Nicholas' issues with the city. The day care center on St. Petersburg Drive East can still operate for now.
The Child Care License Program, which makes sure that day care centers comply with state and local regulations, said there previously haven't been major issues at the center. Inspection reports show occasional problems with record-keeping, insects and cleanliness.
In April, a week after Oldsmar sued Nicholas to evict her, Nicholas filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, effectively halting the eviction proceedings.
Now, according to information in the eviction suit, Nicholas owes Oldsmar about $9,000 in unpaid rent.
Nicholas said she doesn't talk to newspapers. She wouldn't comment about the city's allegations, except to say they're not true.
"I've tried to talk to the city and they've been difficult," Nicholas said.
Several Oldsmar officials, however, say the city went out of its way to accommodate her, even cutting her previous monthly rent of $2,000 in half.
"We've been working with this woman for a long time," said City Attorney Tom Trask. "There were all sorts of concessions made for her."
Oldsmar assumed the lease, which Nicholas had with her previous landlord, when the city bought the property about a year ago.
Court records show it's not the first time that one of Nicholas' day care facilities has been evicted. Kiddie Campus Child Development Center was evicted from Woodland Square Shopping Center in 2008.
Nicholas also filed for bankruptcy protection as Jean Robinson in 2004, before a marriage and subsequent divorce from Samuel Nicholas III. In that bankruptcy case, which was dismissed, she said she also used the last names Kemokai and Seasay within the past six years.
In her current bankruptcy case, Nicholas listed her liabilities at nearly $498,000 and her assets at about $299,000. The case was dismissed this month because Nicholas failed to make payments to the trustee. A hearing to reconsider the dismissal is scheduled for Aug. 29.
Nicholas said her day care business is struggling because few parents can afford to send their kids to day care. She said 13 kids attend the Oldsmar Learning Center, which serves preschool and elementary-age children.
The city has a choice, she said.
"You can have an empty building or you can provide a service to the children," she said.
But as of Thursday, Nicholas can't work with children in the center. State law disqualifies people from working with children at childcare centers if they plead guilty — regardless of adjudication — to various crimes, including felony thefts.
In 2009, Nicholas pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony grand theft charge. The judge withheld adjudication, sentenced Nicholas to probation, and ordered her to pay restitution of $14,919.
Child Care License Program officials learned about that case from the Times this week. They didn't know about the offense because Nicholas underwent a background screening before the case and was not due for another screening until 2012, said Patsy Buker, executive director of the Pinellas County License Board.
Late Thursday afternoon, after researching the case, Buker invited Nicholas to the license program headquarters in Largo, where she told Nicholas her criminal history disqualified her from working with children at the center. Nicholas also agreed to undergo another background screening.
The Oldsmar Learning Center received a provisional license, which will allow it to operate for up to six months while Nicholas seeks a director with the proper credentials. Meanwhile, Buker said, the license program will keep an eye on the center.
Nicholas' grand theft charge stemmed from a complaint by Nicholas' sister's stepdaughter, Latisha White. White said that Nicholas used her personal information to open credit card accounts and make other financial transactions without her knowledge, according to a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office report.
Credit card purchases on those accounts included flowers for one of Nicholas' friends in Maryland, private school tuition for Nicholas' daughter and a refrigerator for Kiddie Campus.
On Friday, Nicholas said she previously wasn't aware that her guilty plea disqualified her.
"Thanks for unraveling my life," Nicholas told a reporter.
White said Nicholas never apologized to her about the incident, which hurt White financially and damaged her credit.
"There was no justice for me," said White, 31, of Tampa. "It's still causing me stress. I'm still fighting to get everything corrected and rectified."
Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.