By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Three seats on the Harrisonburg School Board are up in this fall’s election, and four candidates vying for them – three incumbents — Deb Fitzgerald, Kaylene Seigle and Nick Swayne — and one newcomer: Irvin Peckham.
They’re running in a time when education as a whole is under pressure by the COVID-19 pandemic. School leaders everywhere must navigate public health concerns, technological inequities among students in accessing virtual learning and huge shifts in how to teach, feed and generally look after young people in public schools.
Additionally, Harrisonburg is still wrestling with the fate of a second high school. Construction on the school has been on pause since April. And there have been calls from some in the community to remove school resource officers from school buildings.
The Citizen spoke with each candidate about priorities for the city schools should they win a seat in November.
Deb Fitzgerald was first elected to the school board in 2016, and was part of the driving force to get the second high school built and open by 2022 before the pandemic interrupted that timeline. She teaches economics at Blue Ridge Community College and Eastern Mennonite University, where she now has firsthand experience with the “excruciatingly difficult” task of navigating different combinations of in-person, virtual, synchronous and asynchronous teaching.
Fitzgerald was recently re-appointed to serve on the Harrisonburg Planning Commission, and has also been involved with the NAACP, Harrisonburg Democratic Committee, Northend Greenway and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
Her priorities if re-elected, she said, include reopening schools safely, resuming the division’s strategic planning process and deciding on the roles of school resource officers with community members’ input.
“Of course, looming over everything for me is HHS2,” Fitzgerald told The Citizen. “We were about eight weeks after the groundbreaking when COVID shut everything down. And I had spent a good portion of the last two years – I don’t even want to think about how many hours I devoted over the last two years – to getting that project over the finish line and literally getting shovels into the ground.”
As for the issue of school resource officers, Fitzgerald has fielded varied community input on whether they should be armed when in the schools.
“I was [the school board] chair when the Parkland shootings happened, and remember really vividly the conversations we had then,” she said. “The push there was almost in the other direction … more police presence in the schools.”
Fitzgerald said the school division needs to hold conversations with the community to make a decision on school resource officers that’s tailor-made for Harrisonburg.
“We just have a school system that’s unique in a lot of different ways, and a community that has a really specific relationship to the police. And I would like it to be one that suits us – our schools, our students, our families and our police department.”
Kaylene Seigle, a sales associate at United Bank, is running for her second term on the school board. She grew up in the Northeast neighborhood of Harrisonburg and told The Citizen she struggled academically in middle school, until she became a Christian.
“It just really changed my outlook on life, my outlook on myself as a person. I developed a fondness of learning,” Seigle said. She graduated as a honor roll student with perfect attendance and went on to study accounting at Eastern Mennonite University before entering the banking industry.
She acknowledged she’s a bit of an anomaly in the group – the only one who’s involved in Republican politics, grew up in Harrisonburg, doesn’t have children and doesn’t work in higher education or an education-adjacent field.
“I would like to continue, as I call it, to bring balance to the school board and to be a voice of reason and to continue to serve my community,” Seigle said.
That voice of reason, Seigle said, is particularly needed in conversations about the second high school. While she did vote along with her colleagues to unanimously approve the second high school’s final design and price last November, she was one of three board members – along with Nick Swayne and Andy Kohen – who wanted to cut the nearly $5 million sports stadium complex from the school’s design to save money.
Seigle told The Citizen she tries to find “common ground” to accommodate the growing population of high school students while trying to keep costs low.
“I feel okay with my decision, because I had stated what I needed to state … we do need a second building, but I did not agree with the $100 million price tag,” Seigle said.
But she said she wondered whether many high school students would prefer to stay online for their education even after schools reopen.
“Now things have changed. And it really raises a question to a lot of the community members – would we still need to build a second high school?” she asked.
Incumbent Nick Swayne is currently the longest-serving member on the school board, having first been elected in 2008. He’s the founding director of JMU X-Labs at James Madison University, a transdisciplinary program that offers classes in subjects like drones, “hacking for diplomacy” that has students working on projects for the U.S. State Department and robotic process automation. Swayne is also the executive director of 4-VA, a collaborative partnership between JMU and seven other Virginia universities.
Swayne has also been involved in the Stanford University Innovation Fellows, Virginia-DC robotics, the veteran scholar’s task force and the Harrisonburg Regional Veterans Collaborative. He turned to higher education after a 26-year military career.
Swayne said he decided to run again to provide “continuity” on the board while the pandemic threatens both today’s students and the future of the second high school.
He said he fears that some city leaders may try to revisit discussions of alternatives to the second high school, such as building a smaller annex on the existing high school.
“To revisit some of those discussions and go through them again … would add more time onto the delay,” Swayne said. “I just don’t think that it’s fair to the community, the kids, the teachers, to delay any longer. It hasn’t had an impact now because everybody’s working from home, but eventually we’re going to go back.”
Another priority for him is to improve childcare access to Harrisonburg families, although he said that’s not just a local problem, but a national one.
“The cost, and I don’t mean just the dollar cost, is often borne by the women. You know, the guy keeps going to work, and the woman puts her career on hold or takes a reduction in pay or a reduction in position, and you never gain that momentum back,” he said.
He’s said he is excited by some of the division’s innovations to cope with the pandemic, such as partnering with the Horizons Learning Foundation so that some of the city’s students can learn in an outdoor school.
Swayne would also like to restructure the pay scale for teachers.
“They’re working 12 months out of the year, they’re working 10 hours a day, they’re being volun-told to manage clubs and programs, and they’re grading stuff on the weekends,” he said. “Look at your long-term student debt. Look at the cost of a house. The ongoing costs of a car. And let’s recalculate and recalibrate the salaries based on the new model, because really what they’ve been based on is incremental increases since the ‘70s.”
As for school resource officers, Swayne told The Citizen in an email he thinks their new role is “better defined” now that it was laid out in a temporary contract with the Harrisonburg Police Department that expires at the end of the academic year. But “success will depend on the people hired,” he said.
Irvin Peckham is the only newcomer contending for a spot on the school board. He moved to Harrisonburg about three years ago after he retired from Louisiana State University, where he directed its writing program. His education career spanned more than four decades. He also taught writing at Drexel University and the University of Nebraska, as well as high school English in California. He’s involved at the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, and the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee.
Despite being relatively new to town, Peckham told The Citizen he has a vested interest in the city schools. His three grandchildren are among their students.
“I’m a member of the community now,” Peckham said. “This is where I’m going to live the rest of my life.”
One of his areas of expertise, he said, is assessment – particularly, moving away from standardized, multiple-choice methods of evaluating students, toward models based on collaboration between students and teachers, as well as portfolios of students’ work and writing that’s more sophisticated than the standard “five paragraph essay.”
He’s also experienced at teaching hybrid classes at the college level and wants to help teachers and parents transition to new forms of learning that blend online and in-person instruction even after the pandemic.
“We’re not going to go backwards after the COVID crisis is over,” Peckham said.
Other priorities for him are social class stratification and educational inequity, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“When technology becomes … a primary player in the field, you’re going to increase educational inequality,” Peckham said.
Besides getting comparable technology into the hands of every student, he said, young students need help learning to use devices, and working parents need extra support to juggle childcare and tutoring with bringing in income.
Peckham said the issue of a second high school is not an “if,” but a “when.” And he’s seen other growing communities try to put off facility expansion.
“You have the need of more students than the existing structures will permit. You try to put it off by using these temporary buildings. They’re just absolutely highly unsatisfactory … for teaching and for learning,” he said.
As for having armed school resource officers, Peckham said he’s “so totally against it.”
“We’ve got to correct society in another way,” he said. “I grew up, and I’ve been teaching in a way — in a system — where we didn’t have police officers in our schools.”
And while he’d be more accepting of an unarmed officer’s presence, “I fully respect police officers … but schools are for teachers and everybody associated with educational policies.
“And the streets and elsewhere,” he said, “that’s where the police officers should really be working.”
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