For Floris Elementary principal Dennis Nelson lunch on an average day consists of a power bar of some typically tasteless flavor and a Diet Coke — that is if an average day could be defined at Floris.
"Today, I’m on my way to Fox Mill to see my daughter perform in her sixth grade show," said Nelson, married to wife Rose for 28 years this June 30 and father of three children. Bethany is the sixth grader attending Fox Mill. Nelson’s older children are David, 19, a rising sophomore at Virginia Tech, and Leah, 22, who will be starting law school this fall at the University of Richmond.
Nelson, raised in New York City, where his career as an educator began, graduated from Hunter College with a degree in psychology. Nelson, a Mets fan turned Orioles fan earned a master's degree in reading and elementary education from Queens College, also in New York.
On Friday, May 24, Nelson put the opened can of soda back in the refrigerator before departing for Fox Mill, the place he called home for five years as principal prior to taking the helm at Floris.
BUT, AFTER FIVE YEARS at Floris, Nelson, 52 and not ready to retire, will be calling Falls Mead Elementary School in Rockville, Md. home this coming fall. "I’m sensing a pattern here — four school principalships, four schools beginning with the letter ‘F,’" said the 27-year Herndon resident. Prior to his five-year stint at Fox Mill, Nelson served as principal at Franconia Elementary School in Alexandria for three years.
"I’m very sad," said four-year Floris fourth grade teacher Kathy Clifford of Herndon. "I was hired by Dennis. He’s been a great model. I feel I’ve been shaped as the teacher I am because of him. It’s going to be hard. It’s a family here," she said.
"He’s done a lot of good things for Floris," said parent volunteer Tricia McCrone of Herndon. "He’s very positive in his job. It’s going to be a difficult transition," she said.
"It’s very, very sad," said second-year Floris fourth grade teacher Yoko Linam of Arlington. "He was the one who hired me. He’s been great in understanding — even personal issues. He has been cooperative and flexible and I’m really going to miss that. I think he has bonded with everybody — even with new people like myself. I’ve been here only two years; I feel like I’ve known him longer. He’s very honest," said Linam.
"He’s a good principal. I’ll miss him," said Floris fourth grader Blake Williams, 10, of Herndon.
"We’re going to miss him when he leaves. I hope he has a good time wherever he’s going," said Floris fourth grader Ryan Murakami, 10, of Herndon.
"I wish he didn’t have to go," said parent volunteer Kim Banks of Herndon. "That’s what’s sad; it’s not his choice. He’s always been supportive of the PTA. This is such a great school; he puts the kids first. This school has a disciplined, yet friendly atmosphere," she said.
"Dennis was very welcoming," said parent volunteer Lori Markowitz of Herndon. "We came in the middle of last year. I’m really sorry he’s leaving. We’re losing some very good teachers and administrators. It makes no sense," she said.
"Falls Mead is very fortunate," said fourth-year Floris fourth grade teacher Melanie Graham. "They’re getting a great principal. They’re going to have a great school," she said.
WHAT MANY PEOPLE do not understand, including members of the Fairfax County school staff, is that an accounting procedure is pushing experienced teachers and administrators like Nelson out the door.
"I’m leaving. I’m not retiring. I’m not bitter, but there’s a quirk in the retirement system, that at a certain number of years and age combined, we actually get paid less," said Nelson. "It’s the most complex system in the country, and I’m on the superintendent’s benefits Advisory Board. There’s a very nice payout, but medical benefits are among the worst in the country — especially coming from such a wealthy county."
Based upon the dual pension system, the state, which allowed for retirement after 30 years and age 55, currently calls for retirement after 30 years at any age and the county, allows for retirement after 25 years and age 55, once a person reaches the maximum, the benefits are reduced, said Nelson, who will have finished 30 years on the job at the end of June.
"To stay on after June 30, would cost me $2,000 a year. Sure, none of us entered the profession for the money, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I have to think of my family. I think they will fix it and it will benefit others. I’m not bitter. I love Fairfax County. They’ve treated me great. Life is just funny," said Nelson, who will commute across the river starting in the fall.
"Falls Mead is in a community much like this one — an older building. I’ve met with staff and some parents. If I have to leave, it feels good. It’s a nice fit," said Nelson of the roughly 460-student school. Floris has just over 800 students enrolled.
"I came from a bad school," said Floris fourth grader Danielle Amin, 10, of Herndon. "He was a good principal for the time he served. He made me feel welcome," she said.
"Mr. Nelson has been principal during my school years here," said Floris fourth grader Grace Cobbins, 9, of Herndon. "He’s been a friend to us and helped us. Our new principal should be like him," she said.