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ROCK SPRING, Ga. — Are Walker County education leaders intimidating teachers into not presenting problems to the school board?

Jim Barrett, the head of the Walker County Association of Educators, made that accusation Tuesday night during a forum for school board candidates running in the May 24 Republican Primary. Barrett, the forum's organizer and moderator, said more teachers would speak out against certain school policies, if only they weren't scared to lose their jobs.

"There is a culture in Walker County, whether the administration wants to admit it or not, that says you don't talk to people," Barrett said. "If you say there is a problem, you are the problem."

Karen Stoker, an incumbent in the board's Post 1 who is running unopposed for re-election, told those in attendance at Georgia Northwestern Technical College that to her knowledge, intimidation has not been an issue. But if she's wrong, she said, teachers and parents and students should feel free to reach out to her — or any other member of the board.

"I get phone calls, emails, text messages, face-to-face conversations almost on a daily basis," she said. "I really don't feel like that has been something that has been prevalent."

some text Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines believes serving children is the ultimate community service.
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Schools Superintendent Damon Raines, who was in attendance, declined comment on the accusation of intimidation and referred to Stoker's answer.

Though Barrett said he invited all four candidates running in the Republican Primary to Tuesday's forum, only Stoker and Casey Eady showed up. Dale Wilson, an incumbent running unopposed in the Post 4 seat, could not make it because of a prior work commitment.

Phyllis Hunter, another incumbent who is competing with Eady for the Post 5 seat, did not respond to the Association of Educators' invitation, Barrett said. His group formally endorsed Eady two weeks ago because, he said, Eady is more willing to "give teachers a voice."

On a questionnaire submitted from the association, Eady said she would be willing to meet with association members regularly.

"It would be mutually beneficial to keep communication open among the various stakeholders," she wrote. "I will make my contact information known to members and be available for one-on-one conversations."

Asked the same question, Hunter wrote, "The local school board represents students, parents, taxpayers and educators. Students are always our first priority. We try to support all stakeholders without favoring one for the other."

During Tuesday's forums, parents, teachers and students all asked questions of the candidates. But the majority of the discussion came from Barrett, a critic of Raines.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in favor of Barrett in a lawsuit against the school system. A judge agreed with Barrett's assertion that the system's policy for public comment at board meetings was unconstitutional because, in theory, Raines can keep critics from speaking to the board.

Before making any comments, the speaker has to first present any concerns to Raines. Raines then sets a meeting. Then, Raines investigates the problem. Then, Raines meets with the speaker again. And if, at that point, the speaker isn't satisfied, they can talk to the board.

The problem is, a federal judge ruled, Raines doesn't have a deadline for meeting with the speaker. So in theory, he can push off any meeting he doesn't want to have, delaying public comment to the school board indefinitely.

A judge has ordered the school system's leaders to re-work their policy. Meanwhile, a lawyer representing Barrett expects the school system to settle with Barrett on a dollar amount that it owes him.

Barrett has been a critic of standards-based grading, a system implemented by Walker County Schools under Raines' watch. The grading formula allows for only tests to count for a student's results. Homework doesn't matter, Barrett said, and this breeds laziness.

Brandon Self, who is in his first year as a band teacher at LaFayette High School, said the system could work — if he understood it. He said he didn't think the training was as strong as it should be. Explain it to me better as a teacher, he said, and most of the problems will probably go away.

"Even the teachers I've looked up to to learn from," Self said, "they can't figure this out."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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