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Standing in front of the Walker County School Board, Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an overcrowded board room in 2017. The school board does not allow time for comments from the public during its meetings, and has been ordered by a judge to do so, though no timeline has been set.

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 last 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.

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 last 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.

The following night, the Fairyland Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization launched a change.org petition, urging the board to adopt a public comment policy by Nov. 19.

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."

Meanwhile, he said the district has fixed the freezer.

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.

In an interview last Tuesday, Raines said that in addition to the freezer giving out, one of three cafeteria workers retired over the summer. A second worker took medical leave. The third worker quit, and recruiting new workers is difficult, he said.

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.

Presley was frustrated after last 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."

Email Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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