Rockingham Co. school chair claims ‘there is no conflict’ with attorney, suggests he might not show up to April 1 emergency meeting

A tree with a long brick building behind it.
The Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City school boards jointly govern the Massanutten Technical Center. (File photo)

What had otherwise been a low-temperature Rockingham County school board meeting ended with a lengthy speech by board chair Matt Cross addressing questions about RCPS’s new legal counsel after The Citizen and the Daily News-Record reported on a potential conflict of interest. In his remarks, he suggested he and other county board members might not attend an April 1 emergency meeting about the issue. 

“In our opinion and our attorney’s opinion, there is no conflict of interest there,” Cross said.

Last week, the county school board decided without a public vote to terminate its decades-long relationship with BotkinRose Law Firm and to hire Daniel Rose, an attorney at Litten & Sipe. Both are based in Harrisonburg.

Rose also works with a conservative Christian group, Alliance Defending Freedom, representing a group of teachers in a lawsuit against Harrisonburg City Public Schools over its interpretation of its transgender student policy. Because both school boards oversee the Massanutten Technical Center, the attorney suing HCPS will now also be representing part of the city school system. Harrisonburg school board members have questioned whether Rose’s access to documents as the counsel for Rockingham County Schools and Massanutten Technical Center could also give him access to Harrisonburg school documents. 

The Rockingham County school board made the decision to change counsel during a closed session and didn’t vote on the decision in public. Cross said Monday that, by doing so, he believed the board didn’t violate the law or board policy. The board was in agreement, he said.

Virginia law allows for government entities to discuss certain issues, including hiring a law firm, in a closed session. But the law also bars a public entity, such as a school board, from taking “action on matters discussed in any closed meeting” behind closed doors and instead says the board should return to open session to take any actions. The law also requires public entities that go into closed session to “immediately reconvene in an open meeting and shall take a roll call or other recorded vote to be included in the minutes of that body.” 

Cross said the school board made the decision because members had doubts about its former counsel.

“Over the past few months certain instances have risen that have caused the board to question our board-attorney relationship,” Cross said. “Trust is an important factor with legal counsel and representation. The board had doubts about that trust, so we decided it was in our best interest to hire someone we trusted.”

While the Massanutten Technical Center board — which includes members of both the county and city school boards — are slated to meet April 1 to discuss the potential conflict of interest, Cross said the county school board members might not attend. Because city school board members were quoted in news stories on this matter over the weekend, he said he believes it’s “a political show” for them and that the city board has “no real reasons” to work professionally with the county school board.

Litten & Sipe has consulted with the Virginia State Bar and says it has the all-clear and no conflict of interest, according to a press release from Rose.

“The policies being challenged in that case are not policies of the Rockingham County School Board or Massanutten Technical Center, in which Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City School Boards are participants,” Rose said.

People at a table with microphones talking
The Rockingham County School Board discusses book policies at a meeting in February. Chair Matt Cross is fourth from the left. (File photo)

Board passes ’24-25 budget with one dissenting vote

The board also approved next year’s budget, which Superintendent Larry Shifflett discussed at length during a special meeting last week.

The board has received budget updates from administrators for several weeks but passed the motion with barely any public discussion, except to reflect on the process and thank administrators. Lohr cast the only vote against the budget, but she didn’t elaborate on why.

Based on the Virginia House of Delegates’ current iteration of the state’s budget, Shifflett said last week that RCPS will receive $6.5 million less from the state this year. This is because the county’s local composite index — a score of a locality’s ability to pay and fund public education, based on factors like real estate value and average resident income — went up. The lion’s share of that money will be redirected to local funding, which will account for $79.8 million, a $6 million increase.

The budget includes a 3% raise for employees, an increase in the hourly rate for substitute teachers and school safety projects, including adding safety resource officers at four schools, hiring a school safety coordinator and using a school safety app for employees.

To make it work, Shifflett said, RCPS had to make some “internal adjustments.” He listed changes and cuts in maintenance, transportation, technology and other departments. Some vacant positions will go unfilled, he said, and other positions will be “repurposed.”

Shifflett will present this budget to the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors this week to request the nearly $80 million in local education funds.

County/JMU/Blue Ridge CC lab school questions

The board also heard a presentation on the forthcoming lab school program created by JMU. Bryan Zugelder, the associate dean for academic affairs and partnerships at JMU, and Shifflett’s executive assistant, Donna Abernathy, said the lab schools will launch at Bridgewater High School and East Rockingham High School this fall. Each school has 50 slots for rising 9th graders, which will be filled on a first-come-first-served basis.

Several board members said they had concerns about the project-based learning at lab schools and the cost of running them. The state has all but signed off on allocating $8.9 million for JMU to run the lab school for the next four years. 

After that runs out, Cross said, he’s concerned about the program’s sustainability. In its first year, Zugelder said it’ll cost $8,400 per student. After that, it’ll cost $5,600 per student per year. Zugelder said JMU’s College of Education can apply for grants to sustain the program after the first four years.

The lab school, a partnership between RCPS, JMU and Blue Ridge Community College, won approval from the former school board and has now been approved by the statewide board of education. The money is allotted in the state budget, which just awaits Youngkin’s signature.

At the end of the meeting, board member Hollie Cave also raised concerns about an upcoming 3rd grade field trip to JMU’s Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. Referencing an instance in December 2022 when a grandparent made a formal complaint about the content of a Forbes Center field trip and a land-acknowledgement statement that was read at the event, Cave asked how RCPS responded and said she worried about doing the same field trip again. The county school board investigated the incident, and Shifflett said that since 2022, JMU has agreed to not read that land-acknowledgement statement for the RCPS field trips. Cave said she’ll attend the field trip as well.

Editors note: This story has been updated to include a press release from Litten and Sipe about their representation of RCPS schools.

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