Still no public commenting policy in place for Walker County Schools

Superintendent says school board needs time to review policies. Attorney says they did that three years ago.

Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines speaks during a news conference in this 2014 staff file photo.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - Five months have passed since federal judges told the Walker County school board to fix its public commenting policy, and people still can't speak at meetings.

The board, whose previous policy was twice ruled unconstitutional, has not adopted a new policy. Asked about the snail's pace of change Tuesday, Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said the board members are "in the process of gathering policies and having conversations." He added that the board has not begun to review those policies yet, determining which one they like best.

"We're walking cautiously through the development of a new policy, just for fear that we don't want to have another policy that could come into question," Raines said.

photo Jim Barrett

But Gerry Weber, a first amendment attorney who opposed Raines and the board in a lawsuit, said the district's leaders don't need more time. Even before they lost their case, Raines and the board were ordered to go to mediation with Weber three years ago. As part of the order, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy told them to review every school board's public commenting policy in 11 North Georgia counties.

"They have been looking at these policies for years," Weber said. "It's a very simple process. I have seen other school districts change their policies within a matter of weeks when there were questions raised about their constitutionality. There is no excuse. This should have already happened."

The board's inaction came to a head Monday night, when parents from Fairyland Elementary School filled the room and asked to speak. Some of the parents are upset because the district has not put a freezer back on line after a part broke over the summer. Cafeteria workers have instead driven breakfasts and lunches up Lookout Mountain from Ridgeland High School in Rossville, a 9-mile drive.

However, Raines informed the parents that they could not speak because of the lack of a policy. Some parents shouted at the board members, who did not respond, according to WRCB-TV.

None of the elected officials responded to calls from the Times Free Press on Tuesday. Asked whether he believed the board members should have formed a policy by now, Raines demurred.

"That's a board decision," he said. "They have to come up with a policy. As far as a time frame, I don't know if a comment on that would help in this situation. We've just happened to have had a couple of things that have happened that brought people to the board. There are other ways to reach out to the board, through email, phone calls, meetings outside of the board meetings."

Jim Barrett, a Saddle Ridge Middle School social studies teacher, sued the district over its public commenting policy in March 2015. At the time, anyone who wanted to speak had to first meet with Raines. The superintendent then had 10 days to investigate your concerns and write you a response. If you still wanted to address the board, you had to file a request to central office in writing at least two weeks before the meeting.

photo The Fairyland Elementary campus shows remnants of a slight dusting of snow on a December 2008 morning atop Lookout Mountain as temperatures hover near freezing.

After mediation between the two sides failed, Murphy ruled in April 2016 that the policy violated the First Amendment. The specific issue was pretty minor. Murphy wrote that the district needed to at least create a deadline for when Raines would meet with a prospective speaker. Without any sort of deadline in the written policy, the judge argued, Raines could delay speakers indefinitely, telling them his schedule was full from now until the end of time.

Rather than adopt a new policy, the board appealed. In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Murphy's' ruling. The board appealed again, asking more judges to review the case. On May 2, the court of appeals denied the district's request for a new hearing.

The board and Barrett reached a settlement on June 19, and Murphy ordered the district to pay $330,000 to Barrett's attorneys. (That money comes from an insurance company.)

On Tuesday, Raines added that he is working as fast as he can to fix the problems with Fairlyand Elementary's kitchen. In addition to the freezer giving out, he said one of three cafeteria workers retired over the summer. A second worker took medical leave. The third worker quit, Raines said. (He added that he wasn't sure why.)

He said recruiting new workers is difficult. The district pays $9-$11 an hour for that role, and he said workers can find better pay at other places - Chick Fil A, for example. Meanwhile, he said the district has fixed the freezer. But, he added, he brought in workers from a couple of refrigeration companies to review the equipment and offer advice for how to make the freezer last as long as possible. He said he's still waiting for all of their reports.

Buddy Presley, a parent of two Fairyland Elementary School students, said parents met with Raines in July, after the freezer broke. At the time, Raines didn't plan to fix the freezer, Presley said. In August, after classes started and leadership with the parent-teacher organization met Raines again, he relented and ordered a new part. Presley said it cost $186.

Since then, they have replaced the staff. But, Presley said, the new workers are not trained to use the new freezer yet. He said Raines promised that they would use the freezer by the end of November. Presley said the quality of the food has gotten worse as the workers have driven it up the mountain.

He said Raines didn't plan to fix any problems until parents repeatedly pushed him.

"He wasn't going to do squat," Presley said.

He was frustrated after Monday's meeting and said the board members are dodging their constituents. He believes the members should have simply made a motion to allow a parent to speak.

"They've been hiding behind that lawsuit for years," he said. "... They take the position that they don't have the policy, so you can't speak, which sounds a little communist."


Update: All five members of the Walker County Board of Education released a joint statement Tuesday night, saying they are still in the process of reviewing policies. They also said they were aware of the problems at Fairyland Elementary School's cafeteria.

On Tuesday night, the Fairyland Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization launched a petition, urging the board to adopt a public comment policy by Nov. 19. As of 12:45 p.m., 102 people have signed.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.