Republican Superintendent of Schools questionnaires

In mid-July, the Palatka Daily News asked candidates in August elections to tell our readers more about themselves. Candidates received extensive questionnaires and were given more than two weeks to complete the questionnaires. Below are the answers from Putnam County Superintendent of Schools candidates Phyllis Criswell and Felecia Kelly Nelson. The two face off in the Republican primary. Early voting starts Aug. 17. The primary is Aug. 30.



Age: 61

Years living in area: 58

Family: Two grown daughters, both graduated from Palatka High School (summa cum laude-with highest honors) and the University of Central Florida.

Education: Bachelors Degree in Education from the University of Florida; three Masters Degrees from the University of North Florida - 1.) Elementary Education, 2.) School Guidance and Counseling, 3.) Educational Leadership

Current occupation: Putnam County Superintendent of Schools

Previous employment: 31 years with Putnam County School District as a teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal, principal, director of student services and assistant superintendent.

Military history: None

Volunteer history: March of Dimes Co-chairperson, Rotary Club of Palatka Sunrise service projects, Waterworks Committee, Keep Putnam Beautiful projects

Public elected offices: Superintendent of Schools

Any unsuccessful political campaigns: No

Other political and government experience: School Board meetings and meetings in Tallahassee with legislators and Governor Scott to discuss the needs of Putnam County students.

Endorsements received: None 

1. Why should people vote for you? Voters should vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate with the knowledge and experience to make the changes that need to be made. I have already made needed changes throughout our schools:

1.) Cambridge, An advanced studies program in Kindergarten through 12th grade, as an option for parents and students.

2.) A Sixth Grade Center to better prepare our students for the courses required by the state in middle school.

3.) A partnership with St. Johns County School District and First Coast Technical for more vocational choices for our high school students.

4.) Returning Crescent City schools to three schools with traditional grade levels for better learning opportunities.

5.) Added a 6th grade honors class to Melrose Elementary School. Added Cambridge classes to Interlachen Elementary.

6.) Added honors classes to Middleton-Burney Elementary School.

7.) Returned Musical Theater to Putnam County.

8.) Returned Band to Miller Middle School.

Changing to a new, inexperienced superintendent will only stop the positive momentum and change that I have put into place.

2. What are the three most important issues you would address if elected and how would you address them? 1. Student Achievement, 2. School Grades, 3. Graduation Rate, Student Achievement and School Grades

To address it:

Working on improving low scores is a district wide focus. All principals will work with their teachers and reading/math coaches to develop a school plan to improve student achievement and their school grade. The plan will involve an in depth analysis of the student scores detailing students’ strengths and weaknesses. This will help teachers at each grade level know where to concentrate their teaching. Teachers and principals will monitor the progress of students, particularly those who are struggling. Principals and teachers will meet with parents to explain their child’s scores and enlist the parent’s help with their child’s learning. Principals will set aside time for teachers to meet and work together on areas of student weakness, and plan classroom teaching strategies that work best with their students. They will use prizes and rewards to help motivate students. The district level administrators will continue to provide targeted training to improve teachers’ skills in engaging instruction that is aligned to the Florida Standards. We will also continue to provide training to principals and reading/math coaches on classroom observation of teachers and strategic feedback to improve instruction and student learning. The district administrators will continue to work with the Region 2 DA Team, assigned by the State Board of Education. This Team will review our student scores, observe classroom instruction with our principals, and provide professional development for teachers and principals. The Team will, based on review of scores and classroom observation, evaluate and determine additional resources for district administrators to provide to schools to enhance the learning environment.

3. Graduation Rates

To address it:

We have developed a plan, with the Region 2 DA team, that was presented to the school board at the July 12,, 2016, meeting. Due to the success of Graduation Coaches in other school districts in Florida, we will hire 3 graduation coaches through Federal Title 1 funds. One coach will work with the schools in each area of the county, concentrating on struggling and at-risk students who are “off path” in grades 3, 6, and 9 through 12. The coaches will work with the schools to determine individual plans for each student to meet their individual needs, whether the needs are academic, economic, or family related. We have also partnered with Academic Innovations and every ninth grade student will participate in a class that is devoted to planning a future that requires graduation and post secondary education. Each 9th through 12th grade student will also have an advisory class period where the teacher will help students monitor their individual progress toward their graduation and life goals. These efforts should also help increase student test scores and school grades.
3. What other issues do you see as important? State testing continues to be a concern, especially with parents across the state. Inadequate state funding of education is a real concern. Florida is 48th in the nation in school funding, and continues to mandate changes and programs to school districts without funding them.

4. What specific steps will you take to make government more open and accessible to the public? All school board meetings are open to the public. As an elected official may call or email the school district office for answers to questions or to make an appointment.

5. Have you ever been convicted of a crime (felony), been disciplined by a professional licensing board or organization or had an ethics violation filed against you? No

6. Have you ever filed for bankruptcy, been delinquent on your federal, state or local taxes? No

7. Are there any personal details about yourself voters would be interested in knowing? I was raised in Putnam County attended elementary, junior high, and graduated from high school here. I raised my two daughters in Palatka and they both graduated from Palatka High School Summa Cum Laude (with highest honors). My father was a retired Navy Lieutenant who was at Pearl Harbor the morning the Japanese attacked. I have a great love and respect for our military and our veterans!



Age: 48

Years living in area: Life

Family: Husband John Nelson Jr. Children Channon, Corey and Deonna

Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology Bethune-Cookman University, Master’s Degree in Special Education University of Florida, Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership Nova Southeastern University, currently working on Doctorate in Instructional Leadership Nova Southeastern University. Certified in Educational Leadership (K-12), English Grades (5-9), Exceptional Student Education (K-12), Reading Endorsed

Current occupation: Fulltime Doctoral Student

Previous employment: Putnam County School District, Teacher and Administration, St. Johns River State College, Adjunct Instructor, Palatka Housing Authority Director of Social Services

Military history: None

Volunteer history: Historic Central Academy Preservation and Community Development (President/Board member), Community Partnership for Children (Board Member), Pilot Club of Palatka, Friends of the Ravines (Board Member), Palatka Main Street Inc., Putnam County Homeless Coalition, Putnam County Historic Society, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Putnam County Republican Executive Committee (State Committeewoman and Minority Engagement Chairperson), Republican Club.

Public elected offices: Putnam County State Committeewoman for Republican Party

Any unsuccessful political campaigns: None

Other political and government experience: None

Endorsements received: C.O.R.E (Congress of Racial Equality) Niger Innis, Civil Rights Activist, Blak PAC George Farrell.

1. Why should people vote for you? People should vote for me first and foremost because I am a firm believer in truth, trust, transparency and establishing respectful relationships; elected officials should always be open and honest with the American people. I feel that many elected officials have failed in this area. I am a very genuine, open and honest person and will keep our community well informed and actively engaged with the academic affairs of our school district. The needs of Putnam County are directly aligned with my work history, education and philosophical beliefs. Secondly, in America we are dealing with a new generation of youth, millennials, whose attention will only be gained by someone whom they can relate to and whom can relate to them. I know that my approach to education is better suited in providing millennials of all racial backgrounds with the leadership, guidance and resources they need to move forward in building a stronger Putnam County. Third, for the past two decades there has been a disproportionate percentage of African-American males and females who are below Reading and Math proficiency (3-12) across Putnam County. Currently, there is a disproportionate percentage of African American students who receive disciplinary infractions and are classified as having emotional, behavior and intellectual disorders. According to the Florida Department of Education LEA (Local Education Agency) profile, overall, out of 11, 202 Putnam County students 17% (1,902) are classified as having a disability. This includes students of all racial backgrounds. Many of these students are mainstreamed into regular education classes. Most of my educational career involved working directly with special needs students and assisting teachers with special needs students (when we bring the lowest quartile up that is when the ranking will come up). Fourth, there are a high percentage of parents who are not actively engaged in school activities with their child(ren). Recognizing that there are several barriers as to why this is so, many parents are not engaged with school activities/invitations outside of sports due to a lack of interest in interacting with school personnel and the decisions that are made on the administrative level. I am very active in the communities where many parents who fall into this category live; I understand the different cultures, and have respectful and trusted relationships with this population of parents and their children. Fifth, as a conservative, I believe in balancing a budget that is solid, one that will benefit the educational needs of Putnam County overall. For the past several years I have actively attended School Board, City and County Commission meetings and recognize the strain a poor educational system has on our economy. In order for our school ranking to increase these critical issues will need to be addressed properly. Frivolous spending without a sound strategic plan that speaks directly to the needs of Putnam County students is detrimental to the overall outcome of student achievement and the overarching goals of Putnam County.

2. What are the three most important issues you would address if elected and how would you address them? The three most important issues are (1) Lack of teacher leadership and limited school choice (2) Lack of proper professional development in special education (3) Lack of awareness and active engagement for citizens/and tax-payers (which includes parents). First, I would address lack of teacher leadership and limited school choice by providing our teachers with opportunities to collectively establish their own autonomous schools and academic programs, Teacher-Powered Schools; magnet and charter schools thus establishing a more personable, specialized and manageable school environment; an environment that is not competitive but conducive to the vision and goals of Putnam County. There is a misconception that charter schools take away from school funding, however when charter and magnet schools (such as Cambridge) are under the auspice of the Putnam County School District, it strengthens the learning environment by giving students, parents and teachers more educational opportunities. This concept will also open the door to revisiting our priorities regarding salaries, incentives and benefits for teachers and our support staff. This concept will also attract more families thus drawing more funding back into our school system. Second, I would address lack of professional development in special education by equipping our entire school personnel and parents of special needs students with critical training and resources to better meet the needs of students with disabilities; this will require restructuring of the school environment to full-service schools based on allocation, federal and crowd funding. No student or school should go lacking. I personally feel that students with special needs and schools such as E.H. Miller have not received the proper attention that they deserve. This concept will alleviate the many issues we face in Exceptional Student Education. Third, I would address the lack of awareness and active engagement for citizens/and tax-payers by imbedding our schools into the community and into the lives of citizens (meeting citizens where they are). I will propose opening educational facilities and after school programs throughout the county to strengthen our families. I will also propose a Parent University, mentoring programs, business incubator, and other opportunities offered by the Florida Department of Education and other organizations that we have failed as a school district to take advantage of. Community engagement and awareness in each municipality (township) on the part of the superintendent and school personnel will play a critical role in student achievement thus advancing our economy overall.

3. What other issues do you see as important? There is a need to revisit healthcare costs. We will also need to take a more analytical look at administrative costs/allocations. Both healthcare and administrative costs decrease teacher salaries as well as the salaries of other school personnel (i.e. maintenance, custodian, para-professionals, data clerks etc.). These is a strong need to recognize and award all school personnel for their professional growth; their many accomplishments/performance throughout the year; social events and festivals will be planned for our school personnel so that they will feel the recognition of their efforts. There is also a need to provide more attention and funding/stipends for our athletic department and coaches. Athletics are associated with health, wellness and fitness. Placing more attention on this department provides an opportunity to strengthen our coaches and student athletes academically, physically, mentally as well as socially. Structured study halls and activities for student athletes will be established to assist teachers in and parents in developing our Putnam County athletes. There is a need for open discussions/dialogue on the school level regarding these critical issues in formal/informal settings for school personnel to become more interested and involved in planning and advocating for recognition of their professional growth, salaries/benefits and preferred administrative costs/allocations; based on the needs of their individual schools.

4. What specific steps will you take to make government more open and accessible to the public? The specific steps I would take are (1) Forming: Provide the public with various development opportunities to learn about government, seek inspiration and motivation techniques to increase learning more about government, (2) Storming: establish public alliances to stay abreast on government issues that are affecting the community, seek out similar alliances in other counties and also seek external supports (3) Norming: develop, improve, refine and cultivate skills and dispositions regarding alliances and accessibility (4) Performing: Participate, assess and plan for future growth and involvement in government affairs, and (5)Transforming: Serve as a resource for others who might be interested in government affairs. Government officials are actively involved in the process therefore making government more open and accessible to the public.

5. Have you ever been convicted of a crime (felony), been disciplined by a professional licensing board or organization or had an ethics violation filed against you? If so, please give details. None

6. Have you ever filed for bankruptcy, been delinquent on your federal, state or local taxes? If so, please give the details. I have never filed for bankruptcy and yes I have paid taxes late however taxes were paid within reasonable time without affecting my family assets.

7. Are there any personal details about yourself voters would be interested in knowing? My mother, myself and my younger brother and sister lived in public housing (the projects) in Palatka for 13 years. My mother worked a full-time dead end job at a local dry cleaners and received public assistance (food stamps, medicaid ect.). I watched my mother walk to work before purchasing a car. I watched her struggle to take care of me and my siblings. Although I did not raise my three children in public housing, I too was a single parent receiving public assistance until I decided I wanted better. I enrolled in college, graduated, started my career in social services and eventually crossed over to the field of education. I now have a wonderful husband of 9 years, I hold three college degrees and currently working on a fourth, two of my children are in college (bachelor and doctoral) and one is a sergeant in the military. My mother eventually beat the odds, and became successful in her career working in family child care; my younger siblings are also well educated and established in their careers. My message to single parents, young parents, widow/ers and those who might be struggling to make ends meet in any form or fashion with children or grandchildren to raise; prayer, a sound education, determination, self-responsibility and perseverance can make all the difference. I never thought I would be running for Superintendent of Schools. However, such a purpose and calling on my life confirms that my mother and my struggle were not in vain; it allows me to be a guide, a role model and inspiration for others no matter what their racial background is or rather they are old or young. My life is a living testimony that in spite of the circumstances; you can overcome obstacles. 

Palatka Daily News

1825 St. Johns Ave.
Palatka, FL 32177
(386) 312-5200


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