Accusation of ‘bullying remarks’ at center of exchange between city council and city schools leaders

Members of the city council and school board meet Friday, Jan. 27, to debate the effects the Bluestone Town Center development will have on the student population. Council member Chris Jones is on the far left, while the school board’s chair, Deb Fitzgerald, is on the far right and Superintendent Michael Richards is third from right. (File photo by Bridget Manley)

A letter between elected officials in Harrisonburg has laid bare the nuanced difficulties of city power dynamics, as well as an issue of parental privacy rights and ethical questions regarding the conduct of elected officials.

Both sides say they must protect people at the heart of the issue. On one side is a father who says that this kerfuffle is a private matter between him, his child, and the school system. On the other side is a school board chair, who says one of her responsibilities is to protect employees in the Harrisonburg City Public School system. 

School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald sent a letter to Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed on Nov. 10 detailing an alleged incident between an HPCS employee and a member of the Harrisonburg City Council. 

In the letter, Fitzgerald said a “city resident who is both a parent and a council member” made “bullying remarks” to a division-level director, as well as to the school system chief of staff on separate occasions. 

While the letter — obtained by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information Act request — did not name the councilman, interviews conducted regarding the letter have confirmed the councilman is Chris Jones. 

In the letter included in full below, Fitzgerald wrote that the council member referred to the school district’s superintendent, Michael Richards, as “my superintendent,” accused the school employee he was talking to of working within a division that does not support Black and Brown children and raised the issue of the council’s funding of the school system. Fitzgerald’s letter also said Jones implied that it was funding “he gives” in “a way that appeared to be somewhat threatening.”

Harrisonburg City Public Schools are funded through a combination of state, local and federal funding. The city’s school fund is the city’s second-largest budget – about 36% of the city’s overall budget.

Fitzgerald said Richards, the superintendent, made her aware of the alleged incidents. The conversation between Jones and the school district employee, who is at the director level, was a result of concerns Jones raised following a parent-teacher conference.

Fitzgerald said in an interview with The Citizen that she felt compelled to defend school district employees, especially considering the power imbalance when a council member who makes budgetary decisions references school funding in an exchange like that. 

Chris Jones

In a lengthy statement included below in full, Jones described the situation as a private matter involving the education of his child and refuted Fitzgerald and Richards’ characterizations of his interactions with school officials. He also repeatedly questioned why the superintendent and school board chair would discuss the situation at all — or allow it to spill into public.  

Fitzgerald, when contacted by The Citizen about the letter, said that she believes power comes with responsibility. And she said she felt that as chair of the school board, it was her job to stand up for the school district’s staff.

“What this council member has done has used his power inappropriately with a staff member of HPCS,” Fitzgerald said in the interview. “It’s my job to stand up and represent our staff members. In this case, because of the power relationship, they really can’t do that. I can. And it’s my job. It’s my responsibility.”

Mayor Deanna Reed told The Citizen that when she received the letter from Fitzgerald, her first course of action was to learn more about the situation and to speak with Jones. She said she wanted to better understand his position both as a council member and as a parent with a child at the heart of the matter. 

Reed said although Jones is both a parent and a city councilman, he “is clear on where the boundaries between those two areas are,” and that he is as passionate about protecting his child while he also serves his community. 

“It is clear to me, and it is clear to the rest of our council members – we all share the same opinion – when I talked with them individually, that this is a private matter between a parent and his child and Harrisonburg City Public Schools,” Reed said. 

Reed said that all five council members are aware of their responsibilities and conduct as elected officials. 

“I don’t have any concerns about the ability of our council members to do their jobs objectively, and I don’t believe this discussion will have any impact whatsoever on council’s relationship with Harrisonburg City Public Schools or divert us from our mission of making Harrisonburg into an educational epicenter that we see in our city vision plan,” Reed said.  

The Harrisonburg City Council has not a adopted a specific code of conduct or ethics code.  

“There is nothing a council member must sign other than their annual conflicts of interest act disclosure statements and there is no authority under state law which would require a council member to sign such a locally adopted code of ethics or conduct,” Michael Parks, the city’s spokesman, wrote in an email to The Citizen.   

In text messages also obtained by an additional Freedom of Information Act request, Mayor Reed texted city council members regarding the original FOIA request sent by The Citizen. In those texts, Jones told his fellow council members that it was “a very serious situation surrounding the treatment of my [child] by HPCS.”

In other text messages Jones sent to Reed, Jones wrote that the details in Fitzgerald’s email to Reed were either “taken out of context or inaccurate,” and further said that the original situation with HPCS had not been resolved. 

Richards told The Citizen that while it wasn’t his place to address concerns regarding an elected public official, he felt it was appropriate to express his concerns to Fitzgerald. Furthermore, he said it was important for him, as the superintendent, to address the concerns raised by school employees because any potential abuse of power could “derail” the efforts of those employees who are building equitable systems to support all families. 

Richards said educators and school staff work to ensure that Black and Brown students receive equitable treatment within the system, and educators work tirelessly to ensure that all students are handled with care and love. 

“We ask ourselves every day, at every intersection if we are prioritizing diversity, inclusivity, equity, and cultural responsiveness through our policies, practices, and approaches,” Richards said.  “We constantly examine our biases with a commitment to ongoing improvement.  One needs only scratch the surface to see the dedication of our educators to our diverse community—our Black and Brown students—all of our students.” 

Reed said she hopes Jones and his child can find a resolution to the matter without any further public discussion.

Deb Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald said that when powerful people treat others with less power poorly and are not held accountable for their actions, the civic conversation becomes “poisoned,” and it becomes harder to treat each other with grace and professionalism. 

“I would like a level of professionalism in the Friendly City to be such that we can have conversations about what’s best for individual kids, parent-to-teacher, and what’s best for the city as a whole in ways that make it easy for us to work together that don’t involve intimidation or any kind of even mild bullying,” Fitzgerald said, “especially when the power dynamics in the relationship are really different.”

Jones, in his statement, described his interaction with Richards as being a “negative experience” but said it would in no way affect his support, as a council member, for the school system. 

Read Jones’ full statement as well as Fitzgerald’s letter to the mayor below. 

Jones’ statement to The Citizen

“The matters surrounding my child’s educational experience, mental health, and treatment by HCPS staff were not resolved as of November 10th despite what the Harrisonburg School Board Chair indicated per her conversations with the Superintendent of HCPS in her letter to our Mayor. In fact, my wife and I met with a member of the HCPS administration, my child’s teachers, and my child’s principal on December 1st to discuss a healthy path forward. I do not know why the Superintendent and the School Board Chair indicated to our Mayor that things were resolved on November 10th. We just started the resolution process on December 1stand I trust that the two HCPS administrators from the central office and the staff of my child’s school will make sure my child has a better experience. This should not be a public matter. I wonder who notified the press about a private matter and why?

I am a parent first and foremost. At times during this process, I followed the school’s procedures and protocols for parents when they have issues. All my interactions with my children’s teachers and principals have been from the perspective of a concerned father. In no way did I ever bully any staff member of HCPS as indicated by the Harrisonburg School Board Chair per her conversation with the Superintendent of HCPS in her letter to our Mayor. I have confirmed with the two HCPS administrators from the central office that my conversations with them were courteous and respectful and from the perspective of a parent not a Councilmember.

Furthermore, my wife and I were thanked for advocating for our child. I do not know why the superintendent said something different than what actually happened during the exchange between his employees and my family since he was not present. I do not know why the superintendent did not follow up with me; a concerned parent that reached out to him. I hope his employees can speak out without fear of retribution. I am curious as to why the Superintendent decided to discuss this with one school board member. This should not have been a public matter. I wonder who notified the press about a private matter and why. 

The Superintendent of HCPS has given my family a negative experience. We feel cheated. Though we feel cheated, this in no way impacts my continued support of the financial needs of the schools. I will always fight for greater funding for our children and more resources for our teachers. My family loves the teachers and hands on staff of HCPS, and we should not have to consider a different educational path for our children because of the Superintendent and Schoolboard Chair. This should not be a public matter. I wonder who notified the press about a private matter and why.”

Fitzgerald’s letter to Reed:

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.