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Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines

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Walker County Schools settles with teacher over public comment policy

Ending a three-year legal battle, Walker County Schools officials reached a settlement Thursday with a local teacher over the system's public commenting policy.

Jim Barrett, president of the Walker County Association of Educators, sued the school district in March 2015, arguing that the board's policy for speaking at public meetings violated the First Amendment. A U.S. District Court judge sided with Barrett in April 2016, and the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the key part of that ruling in October.

Craig Goodmark, an attorney representing Barrett, declined to share the terms of the settlement Thursday afternoon. Superintendent Damon Raines and all five members of the school board did not return calls seeking comment.

But in addition to the settlement with Barrett, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy ordered the board to pay Barrett's two lawyers $330,000 in attorneys' fees.

"The superintendent could have resolved this case in 2015," Goodmark said. "Because of his choices and their insistence on continuing litigation from the trial court to the appellate court, the case became protracted and lengthy. That's regrettable, but it's of the superintendent's own doing."

Raines told the Times Free Press he would release a statement about the case Friday. He did not respond to a text message asking if the district's insurance provider would cover the cost of Barrett's lawyers. (Barrett, meanwhile, said he could not talk Thursday because he was attending a National Education Association conference in Minneapolis.)

With the case's conclusion, Goodmark said the board also needs to draw up a new public commenting policy. Under the current rule, a prospective speaker first must meet with Raines in private. If the speaker has concerns about the school system, Raines will investigate the issue and present a report to the person in private within 10 days.

If people still want to go before the board, they must submit a request in writing at least a week in advance.

But in April 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy ruled that policy was unconstitutional. He said it forces people to wait several weeks — and maybe longer — before speaking before the board. He ordered the board to rewrite its policy.

On Oct. 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the key part of Murphy's ruling, saying the board's policy gives Raines "unbridled discretion to prohibit speech." The policy demands a speaker meet with Raines twice privately — but it does not create a deadline for when Raines will meet with you the first time.

After that ruling, Raines said in a statement the public commenting policy had been in place for 30 years and the board would address the policy once the court case concluded. (He added that the district's insurance provider paid for its lawyers in the case.)

On Oct. 23, the board filed a petition for a rehearing, asking for more appeals court justices to listen to their arguments. The court denied that request May 2. The board then filed a motion to stay the mandate on May 22, saying at the time it was considering taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Their policy currently can't be enforced," Goodmark said Thursday. "If they want to enforce one, they have to create one that's constitutional."

On June 8, Murphy granted Goodmark's request for about $175,000 and attorney Gerald Weber's request for about $155,000. The lawyers argued they worked about 700 hours on the case — including about 290 hours after Murphy initially ruled in their favor.

Randall Farmer, an attorney representing the school district, argued Goodmark's and Weber's hourly rates of $425 and $525 were unreasonable. He also said they spent more time on the case than they should have.

"For a case in which there was no discovery, no depositions, no trial or hearing, and only three (3) appellate briefs such a figure is unreasonable and excessive," Farmer wrote.

But Murphy said the lawyers' requests were in line with the going rate, given the "unusual and complex First Amendment questions" in the case. He upheld all but 48 minutes of work, time Weber spent communicating with a reporter and revising a news release.

Like Goodmark, Farmer also said the case dragged on too long. Except he blamed Barrett's team. He said the board and Raines offered a compromise during mediation in 2015, months after Barrett filed the lawsuit. In particular, he said the board offered to create a timeline for when the superintendent had to meet with a prospective speaker — the key issue in the appeals court's ruling.

Asked about this, Goodmark said in a statement Thursday, "We had suggested some changes, but ultimately the Superintendent and Board walked away from the negotiations and would not agree to adopt the changes, including adopting similar policies already used by other neighboring school districts."

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

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