Longest-Serving Member Of City School Board Reflects On Service
Posted: January 3, 2013
HARRISONBURG — To Greg Coffman, 64, what’s now known as the Municipal Building will always be remembered first and foremost as the Main Street School.
Born and raised in Harrisonburg, Coffman attended the grade school, as well as Keister Elementary School upon its completion, and later the former Harrisonburg High School on South High Street.
So although Coffman was no education expert when first appointed to the Harrisonburg City School Board in 1990, he had the next best qualification: firsthand experience.
For 19½ years, that experience guided Coffman through numerous and weighty decisions regarding the city school system. But at the end of December, the board’s go-to expert and longest-serving member stepped aside to give someone new a shot at the role.
“I didn’t intend to make a career of it; it just sort of happened,” Coffman said, reflecting on his service. “It’s not easy walking away, but you need to do it. [The division] is in good hands and I think that’s important.”
Harrisonburg resident Dany Fleming ran uncontested for Coffman’s vacant seat in the November election.
Coffman’s first term on the board came when appointments were made by City Council. From 1990 to 1993, Coffman, who retired from his job as a pharmaceutical sales representative nine years ago, served his first three-year term.
He was not reappointed in 1993, amid controversy surrounding the redistricting of elementary school attendance areas.
But in 1996, when seats on the board became elected positions, he put his name on the ballot and won. That race was his only contested one, a sign to Coffman that he had the confidence of voters and his colleagues in the educational community.
That makes the departure all the more difficult, he said.
“I think if you’ve got a good system, you are never going to be done [making changes],” he said. “You just have to decide when the right time is for you [to walk away].”
If one thing has been a constant for Coffman, it has been his learning process.
“You never know as much as you think you do,” Coffman said with a smile. “It’s a learning curve. That learning curve continues today.”
During his time on the board, he was involved in making decisions for numerous building projects, including Stone Spring Elementary School, Harrisonburg High School and the newest additions to the city’s roster of schools, Skyline Middle and Smithland Elementary.
He also saw through various educational programming changes.
When he first started, the division did not have a program for students speaking English as a second language, Coffman said. Now, ESL learners make up nearly 40 percent of the division’s enrollment.
The socioeconomic makeup of the division has changed as well, he said, with 68 percent of students now receiving free and reduced-price lunch.
And the growth the division has experienced in the last several years is more rapid than when he began his duties on the board.
“It’s a totally different school system and I had hoped it would have been,” Coffman said, adding that the division’s successful problem-solving has led to the creation of valuable programs and a diverse climate for Harrisonburg students.
“When it comes to how we’ve met the challenge of [serving] ESL [students], we’ve pretty much had to invent all that. There just aren’t any templates,” he said.
Specialized academic programs are among Coffman’s proudest accomplishments on the board.
He helped form the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School in Mount Jackson, where gifted city students focus on technology- and earth science-based curricula. He was also a strong proponent of the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and fine arts academies that give students specialized instruction in those areas during the regular school day.
“I’ve always wanted to provide the most opportunities possible for the kids,” he said. “Some people really want to build something. I’m more concerned about what goes on inside of that building.”
Coffman also pushed for more pay and benefits for school employees, and advocated televising the board’s meetings.
More than the straight business, Coffman will miss the PTA meetings, concerts, performances and long list of other school events — which he always made a point to attend.
“The job is not just going to a meeting twice a month,” he said.
Among his greatest challenges, Coffman counts stretching resources, choosing superintendents — he was a part of what he calls two successful such processes to find Donald Ford and current division head Scott Kizner — and anytime the division has had to redistrict. His first experience with that process came in the early 1990s, when Stone Spring Elementary School opened and the entire division was redistricted for the first time in 35 years.
“I think just about anytime you redistrict, it’s going to be tense,” he said.
Coffman will end his time on the board on an interesting note: The division recently moved to reclaim the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center after declaring it surplus property during one of Coffman’s earlier terms.
“That one has been interesting because it’s [come] full circle,” he said.
With his Tuesday nights now free — which is when the board usually convenes for what can be hours-long meetings — Coffman will enjoy retirement with his wife, Betty. Still, he plans to continue to serve in the community on various boards.
“I never planned to stay on the [school] board this long, so, obviously, I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m leaving the school system in very good hands, very capable hands with lots of positive things happening. After almost 20 years, that’s a good way to go out.”
Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or email@example.com