Walker County Board of Education adopts public commenting policy

Walker County Board of Education adopts public commenting policy

November 13th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Breaking News

Walker County Board of Education members exit the meeting room for an executive meeting before Superintendent Damon Raines, far right, issued a statement in March 2017.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Updated at 8:43 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, with more information.

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — After removing a rule that would have made it easier to speak at the last minute, the Walker County Board of Education adopted a public commenting policy Tuesday night.

The board has not had a policy allowing people to speak at meetings since March 2015, when the president of the local teachers' union sued over the previous rule. The elected officials said they spent months working through a new policy this year, but they shifted into high gear over the last month after parents from Fairyland Elementary School demanded to speak about problems in the cafeteria.

The new policy is similar to the one the board previously used. A potential speaker will have to first meet privately with Superintendent Damon Raines or another central office employee, giving them a chance to research the person's concerns. If people still want to speak, they have to then fill out a written request.

Last week, Stoker proposed a streamlined process. Speakers could simply sign up before the meeting and get to talk to the board for five minutes.

On Tuesday, Raines presented a draft policy with both paths to speaking — meeting with Raines first, or simply signing up. When board chairman Mike Carruth asked the other members whether they wanted to enact that proposal, nobody made a motion to adopt it. Finally, Stoker proposed removing her previous request.

"I would always want the chain of command to be followed," she said. "I would always want a parent or student who had a concern to come to [a teacher] first and then go up the chain of command. I thought about it along those lines."

The board then adopted the policy without the "alternative path" to public speaking. The other members did not say why they didn't back Stoker's proposal during the meeting. But after the meeting, Carruth and board member Dale Wilson echoed her comments, that going straight to the board circumvents other school employees.

"We feel like there's a chain of command in my job and most of the time your job and anybody's job," Carruth said. "We do have a chain of command we do want to follow."

Members of the audience were split on the new policy Tuesday. Buddy Presley, a Fairyland Elementary School parent, said he was happy to at least have a rule in place. Presley has wanted to speak before the board for several weeks, and he plans to address the elected officials about the district's College and Career Ready Performance Index scores at the December meeting.

Caroline Williams, vice president of the Fairyland Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, said the new policy is still too restrictive. She thinks the board should have kept the sign-up sheet option. She said an element of the new policy also seems silly: Central office workers will now have to verify that potential speakers are residents of the county, employees of the district or parents of students.

"Who's going to waste their time and come down here [from outside Walker County] and want to talk to them about something?" she asked.

Williams added: "It just gets frustrating that we're always having to put up a fight to get something going. When, in reality, they should know that it's important to have something like that."

Compared to the board's former policy, there are some slight differences. Under the old rule, there was no deadline for when Raines would hold his initial meeting with a potential speaker. Raines also had 10 days to report back to the person. Now, Raines or another central office employee must meet with the potential speaker within five business days of the request. They then have five more days to report back to the potential speaker.

Jim Barrett, president of the Walker County Association of Educators, sued the board over its policy 3-1/2 years ago, saying the hoops speakers had to jump through were too intense. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of Barrett in April 2016, but only demanded the district change one element. They needed to recreate a deadline for when Raines would meet with requesting speakers. In theory, he could delay them forever.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that ruling in March 2017, and justices from the same court denied the district's request for a new hearing in May. The board settled the lawsuit with Barrett in June.

When the lawsuit was pending, the board took the position that nobody could go before it at a public meeting because the policy was up in the air. After the settlement, the board took the same position because it had no replacement policy in place.

Last month, Fairyland Elementary School parents asked to speak before the board about problems in the school's cafeteria, including a freezer that stopped working. But Raines and the board denied their request.

On Tuesday, Barrett said the new policy is "a step backwards." It includes a restriction on employees speaking before the board, telling them they can speak only about "matters of public concern." That includes a topic that is a political, social or other "concern of the community," as well as something that is "of legitimate news interest."

"This is a big, broad, vague concept," Barrett said. " I see it as a complete disaster."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.