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Staff photo by Tim Barber Standing in front of the Walker County School Board, Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an over crowded board room of more than 100 about his silence on the issue of Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines said. Board members from left are, Bobby McNabb, Karen Stoker, Phyllis Hunter, Mike Carruth and Dale Wilson.

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Teacher: Walker County superintendent told us to advocate against bills

A Walker County, Ga., teacher accused the superintendent of abusing his power this week, saying he pressures employees to oppose legislation.

On Wednesday, Walker County School Superintendent Damon Raines sent an email to all of his employees with a message: "Vote NO on HB 482." Below that, he included the email addresses of state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and local state Reps. John Deffenbaugh, Dewayne Hill and Steve Tarvin.

House Bill 482 would have allowed parents to receive money from the state to pay for private and home school education. It would have also cost the state $17 million to $69 million a year, money that might have come out of public school budgets, according to the Georgia School Superintendents Association. The bill died in the state House Thursday, 60-102.

Jim Barrett, the Walker County Association of Educators' president, said Raines should not tell his employees to advocate for legislation, the same way he should not tell them who to vote for.

"He is addressing us as the superintendent, as our boss, and telling us we need to contact our local representative," he said. " That is absolutely unethical, and it is not supposed to be taking place in a taxpayer-supported entity."

Raines said Barrett is taking his email out of context. The "Vote NO" message in the body of the email? He said that was simply copied from an analysis by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. He told the Times Free Press he emails the staff eight to 10 times a week during the state's legislative session, making sure they understand important, pending legislation.

Raines said he is not advocating for any particular laws or policies. He believes the staff appreciates his emails.

"I don't think anybody out here considers me to be somebody who stands on a political soapbox and pounds out what they should vote for," he said Friday. "I don't. I just want them to know."

But Barrett said Raines has advocated for policies before. He forwarded the Times Free Press an email that Raines sent the staff on Feb. 28, 2017. The state House was voting on another bill to provide for voucher programs.

"Please reach out to your elected official (Steve Tarvin, John Deffenbaugh, Dewayne Hill, Jeff Mullis) and ask them to vote NO on this anti-public education voucher bill," Raines wrote. He also included an example of an email his employees could send to the lawmakers.

A reporter asked Raines in a message Friday evening if the email Barrett forwarded to the newspaper was accurate. Raines did not respond by deadline.

On Thursday, Barrett complained to the school board about Raines' actions. In an email to all five members, he wrote, "Our members are most concerned and stunned that the Superintendent used his position, office, email, and authority, as a public employee to tell all subordinate public employees how to act and what to do on a matter in the political arena. Many feel intimidated and harassed."

About an hour later, after board members contacted him, Raines sent another email to the school system's employees. He told them he sends the messages about pending legislation in case they want to stay informed. He ended the email, "If this was misinterpreted or misunderstood, I apologize."

Board members did not return calls seeking comment Friday. Ron Womack, who represents the school system, told the Times Free Press he did not know about the emails Raines sent. He declined to comment on the issue, citing an unrelated civil case. Barrett has sued the board for what he says are restrictive public commenting policies at public meetings. U.S. District Court and 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judges have ruled in Barrett's favor, but the school board has asked for more appeals court judges to hear the case.

Craig Goodmark, an attorney representing Barrett in that lawsuit, said the emails Raines sent are inappropriate.

"That is political speech," he said. "That is the same as telling somebody how to vote. It's telling somebody's representative how to vote."

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

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