Romero, Jones emphasize education for upcoming council term

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First Hispanic councilman

Sal Romero’s journey to City Council started with the 2010 race. Romero was a candidate but didn’t end up winning. He wasn’t sure if he’d run again, but in 2016, he made up his mind.

“After the presidential election, I started a group of Latino leaders here in Harrisonburg called Latinos Del Valle,” Romero said. “One of the conversations we were having was: ‘We need to make sure that we find someone to run for City Council.’”

Diversity is our strength, and we build up on that.”

— Sal Romero

Romero seemed to be the obvious choice for many.

“Right away, people were like, ‘You should be the one running. You’ve run before, and you’ve been in this community for a long time,’” Romero said. “I have the perspective of an educator. I understand the importance of high-quality education for everyone. I [also] have the experience of an immigrant, so I can bring that lens to the conversation.”

Further motivation to run came from Romero’s experience with government and the education system. He’s worked in the school system for thirteen years and served on the State Board of Education. Currently, he’s the Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement.

“I’ve been around politics and education long enough to know that the decisions that are being made don’t always include everyone,” Romero said. “The decisions don’t always include people who are disenfranchised from government. They don’t include people who come from different backgrounds. They don’t include people who just aren’t in the know of politics. For me, it is critical that we have representation at the City Council and that we have someone who understands the diversity of our city and can actually bring people together and create a system that allows people to access it regardless of barriers.”

Education at stake

The controversy surrounding the building of a new high school was central to the Nov. 6 City Council election. Romero and Christopher B. Jones (the other winner) have both advocated for a school to be built as soon as is reasonable.

“I think we need to look and see what is realistic. If it was up to me, we could build it tomorrow,” Romero said. “Obviously, that couldn’t happen. 2021 will not be realistic. I think 2022 might be more realistic… I will vote to move it to 2022. I will be very firm on that.”

Jones did not respond to a request for an interview. However, in January of this year, Jones proposed building HHS2 in 2021 based on the school board recommendation. The motion failed before the Council. According to WHSV, Jones now supports moving the construction date up to 2022, same as Romero.

Both Romero and Jones campaigned on platforms emphasizing the importance of education.

“I think one of the things we do well [in the school system] is that we recognize that diversity is our strength, and we build up on that,” Romero said. “We not only find ways to learn from each other, but we also find ways to connect with the broader community.”

However, Romero feels that HCPS has areas to improve upon.

“We know who our students are that are struggling. The data is very clear,” Romero said. “And this is not a unique issue to Harrisonburg; I think it’s an issue to a lot of different school systems. If you look at reporting groups, in this case, Hispanic students, we are still not reducing the achievement gap. Year after year, Hispanic male students are underperforming in certain areas. Why is that? I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re able to identify why these students are still struggling.”

Romero also realizes that building new schools may strain the city financially.

“I would like to see us be very strategic when we plan [new schools] and be visionaries,” Romero said. “When they built [the current high school], they were not really thinking beyond three years. We have to think beyond five and 10 and maybe even 15 years because we cannot afford to build new schools every few years.”

Through his experience on the State Board of Education, Romero has seen many school systems statewide. In his assessment, HCPS does very well.

“Very few school systems come close to what we do,” Romero said. “We put our money where we think is important. So when a student comes to us with no language, with no education, we find them the resources. We are always looking to create great opportunities for our kids.”

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