New school board picks familiar faces as leaders, while superintendent lays out goals for 2023

The Harrisonburg School Board selected its leaders for 2023 at the first meeting of the year Tuesday. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

The Harrisonburg School Board unanimously elected Deb Fitzgerald as chair and Andy Kohen as vice-chair Tuesday night at their yearly organizational meeting at Harrisonburg City Hall. Fitzgerald and Kohen also served together in those roles in 2019. 

Typically, the vice chair from the previous year becomes the new chairperson at the first meeting each January, but this year was different. Fitzgerald, who started 2022 as the vice chair, took over the top duties in August when the chair, Nick Swayne, resigned to accept a college presidency in Idaho. 

Board members said before voting that they were excited to have Fitzgerald continue her work through 2023. 

“I’d just like to say thanks to Deb Fitzgerald for doing the work, and all the time she puts in, and I’m happy she’s willing to do it for another term,” said board member Tom Domonoske. 

The meeting, which did not allow for public comment due to its organizational nature, was seamless and efficient. It was Emma Phillips’ first meeting as a member of the board. Kaylene Seigle attended the meeting via Zoom for medical reasons.

Lisa Knupp was unanimously voted to continue as Clerk of the Board, while Kelly Lineweaver was voted to continue her role as Deputy Clerk. 

The board also voted to approve to give the superintendent permission to assign someone to attend meetings in his place if he is unavailable. The board also approved a resolution to allow the board the ability to pay their bills in a timely fashion.

The board also approved and signed the VBSA Code of Conduct for School Board members.

Organizational meetings are required by Virginia law and do not include public comment because the purpose is to appoint members to committees and leadership positions. 

Richards looks ahead to 2023

In his superintendent comments, Superintendent Michael Richards outlined some of the projects he hopes he and the board can tackle in the coming months.

Richards said as part of the four-year policy review cycle, the board will revamp how public comment will take place at board meetings. 

“We are working with our attorney on some changes to that and will bring those forward as well in February and put them in place in March,” Richards said.

Some meetings have gotten contentious in the last year, with some commenters playing music or going over their time. At a few meetings last fall, public comment lasted for hours. 

Fitzgerald was quick to point out that the policy changes will be discussed at multiple meetings, include first and second readings before board members vote. 

“Nobody will be surprised about coming into a meeting and seeing that the public comment period looks different,” Fitzgerald said.

Richards also plans to invite teachers from across the city to the board’s Jan. 17 work session at Thomas Harrison Middle School so they can discuss ways to improve teacher morale. At the final meeting of 2022, elementary teachers told board members they were being “stretched too thin” and needed help. 

Board member Kristen Loflin asked if they could also provide the teachers with dinner during the meeting, which starts at 5:30 p.m., and Richards concurred. 

Another big goal in the future, Richards said, will be program planning for the new Rocktown High School. That will include the academic and extracurricular planning that will shape the school.

The central office has been working on plan which has been a “long, arduous process,” Richards said. 

“We will also have a mascot identified in the near future,” Richards said. 

The choice of a mascot is up to the students at Harrisonburg High School to decide.

Fitzgerald raises concerns about Bluestone Town Center 

During board member comments, Fitzgerald asked community members to keep up with plans for the Bluestone Town Center, a massive housing community being proposed off Garbers Church Road. The development is slated to be presented to the Harrisonburg Planning Commission in a special meeting on Jan. 17.

Fitzgerald said her concern with the proposed housing is with the number of potential new students that might be added to city school system.

“Our estimate of our student generation model put it at adding about 322 students to the student census in the city over the life of that development,” Fitzgerald said. 

Other developments, including a proposed development on Peach Grove Avenue, would add an additional 360 HPCS students in addition to the usual growth of the city schools.

“That’s really quick growth,” Fitzgerald said. 

Fitzgerald also brought up traffic concerns in the area, especially after the opening of Rocktown High School. 

“I’m not opposed to it, I’m not in favor of it, but I am in favor of examining all these issues with eyes wide open, so that we can improve this,” Fitzgerald said. “If we approve this, we should know everything in the city and what to expect.” 

Francisco Ruiz, a student at Harrisonburg High School, receives recognition for composing a piece of music that was played on a statewide platform. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

An HHS composer receives a special recognition

Harrisonburg High School sophomore Francisco Ruiz, a member of the high school band, was recognized by the board for his work composing an original piece, played by the percussion ensemble at the Virginia Music Educators Association conference.

Harrisonburg High School Co-Band Director Daniel Upton told the board that Ruiz wrote each piece for the ensemble, keeping the mind the strengths and abilities of his peers. He applied to the competition and was invited to play the piece live to the educators in Richmond. 

The board also accepted the LEED gold plaque for environmental achievement at Bluestone Elementary School.

Bluestone is being outfitted with solar panels. The district’s central office is slated to get panels next, and Rocktown High School is being built to have the capability to one fitted with solar in the future. 

The school board’s energy changes save the system more than $100,000 in energy costs, according to Kelly Callahan, architect with VDMO, who was part of the design team for Bluestone Elementary School.

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