With the start of a new year comes new leaders of the Harrisonburg City School Board. During its meeting Tuesday — which lasted less than half an hour — the board unanimously elected veteran school board member Andy Kohen to serve as the chair this year. Emma Phillips, who is starting her second year on the board, will be the vice chair throughout 2024.
Kohen moves up from his role as vice chair to fill the shoes of last year’s chair Deb Fitzgerald. (Kohen also followed Fitzgerald as the board’s chair in 2020.)
And while Phillips is relatively new to the board, she’s been philosophically aligned with Kohen. They teamed up to run together in the 2022 general election as part of a slate, along with school board member Kristen Loflin.
“Being a school board member takes a lot of time and energy,” Superintendent Michael Richards said. “But being the leader of the school board takes an extra special amount of time and effort.”
Richards thanked Fitzgerald for her time as board chair, adding that he knows she and Kohen will “continue to do good work.” He presented both Kohen and Fitzgerald with plaques to recognize their work in 2023.
“There was never a time that I asked for something from the two of them that they didn’t respond and provide,” Richards said. “And sometimes that meant meeting at odd hours, it meant thinking through things, it meant strategizing on how to bring this board nice, neat packages of items that they can understand … You don’t often see the work that leaders of the school board have done in the background.”
Kohen told The Citizen that he’s honored to serve the community, particularly HCPS students.
“I think it’s a good time to be in a leadership position,” Kohen told The Citizen. “[Rocktown High School] will be the third school that I’ve opened. I helped open Bluestone Elementary, helped open Elon Rhodes [Early Learning Center], and I was on the building committee for all three.”
Kohen said he’s excited to lead the school board and work closely with Phillips.
“This is not a one-person job,” Kohen said. “There’s a lot of collaboration and cooperation about how we best serve the children of our schools.”
As for Fitzgerald, who enters her last year on the board because she has decided not to run for another term in 2024, she said she’s more than happy to hand over the reins to Kohen.
“I think this is the third time I’ve gone from chair back to a board member, and it feels splendid,” Fitzgerald told The Citizen. “I’ve not been the kind of chair to steer the conversation or persuade people, but now I can do that again and I feel like I can advocate more.”
She added that previous board chairs have tried to remain neutral and hold back personal views so that board members can speak freely.
“It’s interesting, and kind of nice, to be in the position of being able to advocate without feeling like I’m doing something unethical or improper,” Fitzgerald told The Citizen.
Fitzgerald said she’s most excited to restart the collective bargaining discussion with the Harrisonburg Education Association.
Kohen was on the collective bargaining task force, while Fitzgerald served as chair last year, and now they’re switching roles. Fitzgerald said they aim to set their first meeting for the end of January.
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