Tag Archives: Joe Fitzgerald

Can We Afford Affordable?

Photo credit: The Harrisonburg Citizen

Magical thinking doesn’t build schools or roads.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Harrisonburg’s taxes are going up and will continue to go up because of housing decisions.

Stated another way, because talking about taxes makes me sound like a Republican, the city will have to keep building more schools and hiring more teachers and bus drivers and principals because of a perceived housing crisis (or, if you prefer, the way the solution to the housing crisis is being perceived).

The past housing decision was the zoning change that encouraged owners of large properties to add 3,000 beds of student housing a decade or so back. Students moved out of older complexes and families with children moved in. Continue reading

When the Numbers Stopped

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Virginia Department of Health began posting daily COVID numbers on March 17, 2020, and effectively quit Thursday. A press release on the VDH website explains the changes, but doesn’t include enough real information to make it worth the trouble of linking there.

For two years, though, VDH produced daily information that made it possible to produce snapshots of information about the history, current state, and projected trajectory of the pandemic down to the zip code level.

A math degree and journalistic experience made it fairly simple for me to figure out what was relevant to the central Shenandoah Valley every day so that Deb and I could make personal decisions based on more than our reading about national and worldwide trends and about efforts on the various medical fronts. Continue reading

The Governor’s Surge

We’ll know soon if the rest of us get what the unvaxed voted for.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Virginia’s governor ran on a platform to protect children from critical race theory and expose them to COVID. The first goal was moot, since CRT wasn’t often mentioned in public schools to begin with. How well the second succeeds should be apparent by the Ides of March.

It’s been known from the outset of the pandemic that masking, social distancing, and vaccines were the primary defenses against COVID. A year after vaccines became widely available the pandemic could have been effectively over, had rightist demagogues not discovered something new to rail against. If the 1950s were like this, iron lungs would dot America’s red counties like coal-rolling pickups.

And it is in the coal-rolling counties that the Republican freedom-to-infect mandate will be tested beginning Tuesday. Statewide, red counties are less vaccinated. The nearest example is comparing the age 5-17 populations in blue Harrisonburg and red Rockingham, 60% and 34% vaccinated, respectively. Let’s be judgmental, and assume that there is some overlap between the intentionally unvaxed and those who think spewing COVID aerosols is enshrined in some amendment they haven’t read. Continue reading

Belligerence as Leadership

Image credit: MyVaccineUpdate.com

by Joe Fitzgerald

About one in 16 American adults suffer with chronic pulmonary disease. Serious health guidelines say they’re the primary ones who should not wear masks. Some of them still can, but a figure of 6% is about the maximum of adults who shouldn’t wear them.

The governor of Virginia, elected to eradicate a subject that isn’t being taught, has decided that removing masks from public schools is the hill he wants to die on.

The two possibilities are that he truly believes life-saving mask mandates in public schools threaten personal freedom, or that he wants to pick a fight early on to exhibit his strength as governor.

The latter seems more likely. And while even some people are his side of the aisle are smart enough to see what he’s doing, a lot of the people who voted for him aren’t. They elected a reality TV star as president and now a financial speculator as governor. Somehow the image of a private equity manager struck them as more John Wayne than Jacob Marley. Continue reading

This Didn’t Have to Happen

by Joe Fitzgerald

A year ago, the post-Thanksgiving surge was still raging, but there was hope in the imminent availability of vaccines. But 2021 would be the year of criminals who stormed the Capitol because they didn’t understand democracy and of their intellectual brethren who didn’t understand science or medicine.

Virginia set a record today for statewide number of new cases. That’s the third day in a row the number has been a record (12,112 Wednesday, 13,500 yesterday, 17,618 today.) Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro have seen a total of more than 20,000 cases as of today, and Harrisonburg-Rockingham will pass that milestone over the weekend.

The largest strain is on the health-care system. Hospitals are all but closed to all but the most serious illnesses and injuries. Nurses face not only the crush of cases, but the fact that those getting most seriously ill are the most stubborn in their denial about COVID. Those people don’t know enough science to get them to the first mid-terms of nursing school, but anecdotally many of them are abusive and sometimes violent in their resistance to COVID facts. Continue reading

Let Teachers Teach

by Joe Fitzgerald

Remember when SRO was standing room only? It’s not now. That’s not truly a loss, nor is it unexpected in a language whose alphabet only offers 17,576 three-letter combinations for abbreviations.

The number goes up to almost half a million, specifically 456,976, if you go to four letters, and still there are overlaps. I found that out once when I sent a four-letter acronym to a woman a third my age suggesting sarcastically that an upcoming dull and lifeless chore we had to do would be the “highlight of my day.” She didn’t get the reference, and Google took her to the Urban Dictionary where she learned, to my chagrin if not hers, that the abbreviation I’d used also described a female-superior sexual position.

Hilarity ensued once we compared notes, but it was dicey in the interim.

SRO now stands for School Resource Officer, of course, because we don’t want to call them campus cops. I don’t know why, but we just don’t. A debate has gone on locally – that’s Harrisonburg, for my readers in Idaho – about whether SROs are necessary in the middle and high schools. Continue reading

No, Parents Should Not Tell Schools What to Teach

Terry McAuliffe was right

by Joe Fitzgerald

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The statement is actually one of the bedrocks of our public K-12 system. Teachers will go to college for four years to learn what to teach. Literature, history, civics, arithmetic, mathematics. They learn how these things link together, and can perhaps teach how the literature of the 1850s and the economics of slave labor influenced the road to Civil War.

They spend time as student teachers, finding out what it’s like to interact with a classroom full of students, and finding out whether the profession is what they want to pursue.

They know whether “The Fountainhead” or “A Tale of Two Cities” is a better way to teach about narrative, principle, and sacrifice. They know whether James M. McPherson understands the Civil War era better than the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They know different ways to add three-digit numbers, and different approaches to showing students how addition works. Continue reading

Last Local? Harrisonburg’s City Races Could Still Top the Ballot

by Joe Fitzgerald

I barely recognized Mark Obenshain (the Republican state senator from Harrisonburg — ed.) the last time I saw him, and had to tell him who I was. Odd, because we used to run into each other regularly at Keister Elementary, at one time our shared precinct.

That was back when all politics was still local in Harrisonburg. There could be an Obenshain barn sign stored in a shed at a city elementary school and a Democratic official – that would be me – could roll his eyes and entertain the possibility it was donated for art projects. As an election judge, formally closing the polls, I could find Mark and one other guy chatting outside on a cold Election Day and just tell them, instead of making a loud declaration.

The big change from all politics being local began when Suzanne and the now-retired registrar took various actions to prevent or slow student registration in 2008. But as late as 2010 I could still see Mark outside the polls at Keister and note that it was the last local election for 12 years.

I sort of remember thinking he was one of the few people who would get it. With local elections moved from May to November, the congressional year without a Senate or Presidential race was the only time local issues and city council candidates might dominate the ballot. Continue reading

Challenging JMU with a Slingshot

by Joe Fitzgerald

The reasons Jake Conley might win are moral and the reasons he might lose are legal.

Jake Conley is the Breeze editor suing JMU over FOIA requests the student newspaper made for the location of Covid cases on campus. Call it the Dorms to Avoid suit.

JMU declined to provide the info, citing privacy laws that allow it to withhold health information about issues involving 10 or fewer of its 21,000 students.

It’s worth noting that for 10 or fewer of the 697 cases among on-campus students last year to be in one dorm, there would have to be 70 dorms. Or the 25 dorms the school actually has would have 28 cases each, but never 10 at the same time.

Also worth noting, the Breeze isn’t suing JMU, because the paper is part of JMU and can’t sue itself. So the editor is acting as a citizen of Virginia, and is technically on his own unless someone joins the suit or decides to represent him for free. JMU on the other hand can send its staff attorney or, in a pinch, call in the state Attorney General’s office. Continue reading

Delta Dawn at JMU?

by Joe Fitzgerald

More than 1 in 9 James Madison University students was infected with Covid-19 during the school year that ended in May. To date, the university has accepted little responsibility for those illnesses or for any associated spread in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

President Alger and members of the Senior Leadership Team have been predominantly silent about any mistakes the university may have made and what it will do to correct them this year as students return in the midst of the more virulent Delta Variant spread.

The university’s stance a week after classes began last year was “cautious optimism,” according to an email from Alger a few days before in-person classes were canceled. A few weeks later a university spokesperson, not Alger or any senior administrator, told the media, “There’s nothing at blame here except for the virus.”

Silence from the university and from Alger has continued this summer. The university has said it will require students to be vaccinated, but in effect the policy amounts to asking students to tell the university if they aren’t going to be vaccinated. Faculty and staff are explicitly not required to be vaccinated. Continue reading

Eating the Bait


by Joe Fitzgerald

Eating The Bait is the improbable story of Harrisonburg’s Golf Course, and how it came to be, told in a decidedly non-linear fashion by a non-objective observer. The whole sick, sad, silly, sorry, sordid story of the destructive, polarizing, maddeningly frustrating and ultimately hilarious battle over whether a city in the Shenandoah Valley — where little happens, nor should it — should build a golf course. Caution: the story is carefully doctored by a key player to make it more exciting and occasionally uses 4-, 11-, 12, and 7-letter words to express frustration and drama.

In April 1999 the City of Harrisonburg decided to build a golf course. “City” is capitalized here because the phrase refers to the government of the city, in all its majesty and error. The course was touted as raising the quality of life in the city, increasing city revenues, and helping make Harrisonburg a first-class city.

The only real catch, as the City Council voted 5-0 to launch the project and the city staff began making plans and spending money, was that the city didn’t want a golf course. And by “city”, non-capitalized, I mean the people who lived in the city, paid the taxes and owned the government that the council and staff only held in trust. Two polls and an election bore out the fact that a landslide of city voters and an overwhelming majority of its citizenry did not want the golf course.

The City didn’t care. The City knew better. And the city still bears the scars. Continue reading

Calculus and Jury Duty

by Joe Fitzgerald

Calculus is like jury duty. Everyone agrees that it’s essential, and any sensible human being will try to get out of it if they can. But panicked right-wingers are currently cluttering the internet with claims that a change in high school calculus teaching is the latest threat to Western Civilization.

I write from experience. I’ve been called for jury duty twice and taken three calculus courses, plus numerical analysis and differential equation classes with a calculus prerequisite. I don’t remember a lot of the calculus, and I was rejected both times for jury duty. Maybe because I would have been sending reporters to cover whatever trial I was chosen for. Regardless, they paid me $40.25 both times: $40 for a 20-minute “day” of jury duty, and two bits for a mile or less of travel expenses, another way of saying I walked to the courthouse.

Calculus may make less sense than that, particularly for those who don’t necessarily care whether the derivative of a function of a single variable at a chosen input value, when it exists, is the slope of the tangent line to the graph of the function at that point.

Of course it is. Continue reading

Inside the Bubble the Slightest Breeze Is a Threat

This is the fourth column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Breeze was always the “award-winning student newspaper” in JMU public relations — until the paper began filing Freedom of Information requests with the administration. The battle became public when the school decided to give the local paper, The Daily News-Record, first access to COVID data The Breeze had been requesting repeatedly. The university spokesperson broke one of the first rules of PR: don’t become the story. The explanations for dissing The Breeze were convoluted, at best. They boiled down to The Breeze had called every day, but it hadn’t called before the DNR that day.

The administration lashed out at The Breeze again when the paper reported Alger skirting the FOIA. At one point the Richmond newspaper said the JMU spokesperson had provided inaccurate information. And when the Richmond paper ran an editorial lambasting state universities for the way they’d handled the beginning of the fall semester, they illustrated it with a photo of Alger. Later The Breeze requested the number of COVID cases broken down by dorm. JMU consistently refused. It would have been a service to parents all over Virginia, not to mention New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to know where on campus the infections were most prevalent. But the university didn’t have to release those numbers if it didn’t want to. Continue reading

Incautious Messaging and Cautious Optimism


This is the third column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Except for the occasional late-night Facebook message, James Madison University has rarely responded to anything I’ve written. And those messages are like drunk dials from an ex; I appreciate the attention, but I wish they still loved me in the morning. One exception came the week before the September meeting of the Board of Visitors, a Virginia term for what the rest of the world calls a Board of Trustees. A JMU senior communications official responded to a Facebook question on one of my threads from a JMU parent. The official said she could contact the Board of Visitors through a link that he provided.

My friend composed and sent a long discussion of her feelings about JMU’s reopening plans. She lives in Tidewater, but has family in Harrisonburg and follows my COVID numbers posts about cases here. Later she and others who’d commented at the link provided by JMU, found out through a story in the Richmond paper that the comments were never shown to the board members.

People were allowed to comment before the board meeting. The comments weren’t forwarded to the board. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s no law that says they have to allow comment at all, and no law that says anybody has to read the comments. One more reason Virginia should tighten FOI requirements. Continue reading

Everybody’s Next One

JMU President Jon Alger (center)

This is the second column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

JMU was a first choice for many of its students, but has a perennial reputation as Virginia’s safety school. The joke is that JMU stands for “Just Missed UVA.” The acceptance rate has been rising since the 1980s and the enrollment rate, the “yield” in admissions terms, has been dropping at the same time. The two lines crossed sometime in the 1990s. The flip-side of “Born to Be Wild” was a song called “Everybody’s Next One.” The flip-side of U.Va., and of William and Mary, is JMU.

JMU isn’t often a leader or an innovator. Maybe it was in some ways when Ron Carrier was president. He could be bold to the point of brash and brash to the point of bullying. There were stories about him. There were fewer about his successor, Lin Rose, and none about the president in 2020, Jon Alger. A JMU communications official had once complained to a local newspaper editor about the difficulty of promoting the school with Alger at the helm, because Alger was seen as awkward and uninteresting. Continue reading