Dear editor:

An open letter to the staff, parents and students in the Walker County school system

I generally don’t get involved in events that occur around the area where politics are involved as I have learned that in most cases it does little more than bring a very small period of awareness to an issue or issues that are now considered “business as usual” in many of our local government bodies.

That being said, I feel like the events that occurred last week [week of Sept. 13-19] in the Walker County school district deserve a level of awareness, if only for a very small period, just to remind those that are responsible for the education and well-being of the children in Walker County that while yet another questionable decision made by the superintendent has been suppressed, both him and the board are not immune to the accountability that goes along with making those questionable decisions.

While the dust may have cleared for now, I believe that you — the staff and parents in Walker County — will clearly remember both the decision of the Walker County Board of Education to hire superintendent Raines, and the obviously personally motivated decision made (and subsequently reversed) last week [week of Sept. 13-19], when the time comes to review and determine if their Board of Education and superintendent are effectively managing the educational system responsible for your children’s most important period of development.

Let’s reflect on the last three years as well as the latest events.....

- In early 2012, the Walker County Board of Education selected Damon Raines to lead the Walker County School system.

- In late 2012, the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) alleged that Ridgeland’s football coach was leading the team in prayer and promoting Christianity. Clearly, this is a sensitive topic at any level, so providing opinion on the issue is not as important as noting that this event should have made it very clear to superintendent Raines that Walker County school employees, parents and students can mobilize quickly and affect change when it is warranted and necessary.

- In 2013, two females, ages 16 and 17, were “tased” by a male school resource officer at Lafayette High School in order to break up an altercation. The incident was recorded on a student’s cell phone and posted online. Only after local reporters questioned the video was the public even made aware that the incident had occurred. Needless to say, public opinion did not weigh heavily in the resource officer’s favor. Nevertheless, the LaFayette police chief announced his support for the actions of the resource officer on those two girls, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact that the resource officer was also a city police officer (see first paragraph). Following the police chief’s lead, superintendent Raines also supported the use of the taser by the male officer to subdue these two young females. To superintendent Raines’ credit, even though he decided it wasn’t necessary to initially communicate or even discuss the event itself after it was made public, he did make sure that we all knew that the student who filmed the event had violated the school’s “appropriate use” policy for cell phones. Luckily for her, I’m sure given the media attention, he decided she wouldn’t be punished because she was a good kid but would instead be “monitored” to make sure it didn’t happen again.

- In 2015, superintendent Raines proposed a new grading system to the board. Only he, and hopefully the board, knows why a new grading system was needed, as there had not been any metrics reported that would point to a failure with the grading system that was currently in place. One could only assume that superintendent Raines felt the need to justify his existence by heralding a new approach to education in Walker County. After all, so far all he had done was defend prayer and the use of tasers on school grounds. So with the board’s approval, but with no input from the teachers or parents this grading system would directly impact, Mr. Raines changed the district’s grading system. Many parents and teachers questioned both the approach and the way in which the changes were implemented but superintendent Raines simply dismissed that feedback and communicated that there were no issues with the new system. That last sentence is very important, because I believe it speaks volumes when you look at the latest two events involving Mr. Raines.

- March 2015 – A federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jim Barrett, a teacher at Saddle Ridge Middle School, by the Georgia Association of Educators alleging that Mr. Barrett’s constitutional rights were violated as a result of not being allowed to speak at a scheduled Walker County Board of Education meeting, even after he had complied with school district policy regarding a request to do so. This lawsuit was filed because Mr. Barrett was a “vocal critic” of the changes made to the district’s grading system and wanted the opportunity to present his opinion to the board, but he was not allowed, therefore creating a violation of his constitutional rights. The district policy for being allowed to speak at a stated meeting involve meeting twice with the superintendent and then filing a written request. The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Raines “vehemently disagreed” with Mr. Barrett and “often became agitated and upset with Mr. Barrett for his attempts to raise this issue with the board and in public.” As a result, Mr. Raines refused to allow Mr. Barrett to speak at the Feb. 17th board meeting even though the criteria for the opportunity had been met. As of this date, the lawsuit continues to move forward. Needless to say, superintendent Raines has not addressed this lawsuit publicly.

- Late August/Early September 2015 – The 2015-2016 school year has officially gotten underway in Walker County. School principals, their staff and the teachers have worked diligently during the last several weeks to ensure they are fully prepared to effectively perform their expected roles in the lives of the many children they have been entrusted with positively impacting. Everything appears normal. Fast forward to Monday, September 14th. Ms. Lori Vann, the principal at Cherokee Ridge Elementary School, has not reported to work. There has been no communication to the staff and teachers at Cherokee Ridge, so there is immediate cause for concern. She hadn’t said anything about being out or unavailable. The children, who were accustomed to seeing Ms. Vann welcome them to school every morning, were also curious as to why she was not there — but there were no answers. That, coupled with the fact that Ms. Vann was absent again Tuesday, created an immediate call to action by those same Walker County school employees, parents and students I mentioned earlier. Everyone has seen, or can see, the news surrounding the events of last week [week of Sept. 13-19] so I won’t replay all of it here. Luckily, superintendent Raines’ latest attempt to silently eliminate anyone who might pose a threat to his leadership decisions was met with a resounding objection from the people who matter more, you — the parents and the students. It is clear that Mr. Raines underestimated the impact the principals, staff and teachers have on these children, not just now, but throughout their lives, and as a result, Ms. Vann is back at the helm of Cherokee Ridge.

When pressured to comment after the Sept. 15 board meeting, that made the news and apparently required police intervention, the best Mr. Raines could come up with was “She’s on vacation.” And he spent the next three days wrapping an explanation around that response.

On Friday Sept. 18, superintendent Raines released a formal statement that said in essence that all of the confusion and mis-information was Ms. Vann’s fault. She was the one who randomly decided on Saturday, Sept. 12, during the beginning of the school year, to take immediate vacation to plan her retirement, and the superintendent, being the wonderful and accommodating man that he is, simply allowed that to occur with no notice and no communication to her staff.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Vann also issued a statement agreeing with Mr. Raines’ and to date has said nothing else publicly, which I’m sure was not a condition of her reinstatement.

After over a 30-year career, Ms. Vann just decides to hang up her hat and go out like that? Superintendent Raines expects the Walker County general public, parents and students, and, if recent history is any indication, more than likely demands the Walker County staff and teachers to believe that?

More ominously, Mr. Raines’ statement says that Ms. Vann “expressed her desire to return, as her retirement plans did not appear to be a viable option this year.” To me, this is superintendent Raines’ way of making sure that, while he was unsuccessful at removing her right now, he will make sure she “retires” when it is not as impactful, like at the end of the school year.

I say all of the above to say this: the story should not end with Ms. Vann being safely back in her chair. Her voice has been silenced and her character unnecessarily called into question. You, those same Walker County school employees, parents and students that rejected her dismissal should demand a better explanation than what you have been told.

Reinstating Ms. Vann was a reaction to an unexpected and overwhelming objection, a way to silent the masses — but that should not be enough.

- What were the events that led up to Ms. Vann’s sudden decision to both take immediate vacation and subsequently retire?

- Was the board notified of the meeting Ms. Vann had with superintendent Raines on Sept. 12? If so, what were they told?

- If they were told, why did members of the board state to attendees of the meeting on Sept. 15 that they had no idea what parents were talking about when they were asked about the status of Ms. Vann and why she was not at work?

- Why was it okay for the board meeting to progress that night and then adjourn with no explanation regarding Ms. Vann’s absence when it was clear that over 150 people present that night had a vested interest in that information?

- What, if any, plans does Ms. Vann have surrounding her retirement? If I am wrong and Ms. Vann intended to retire either immediately or at the end of this school year, then I stand corrected. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what her true wishes were.

- Lastly, who is running the Walker County school system? The Walker County Board of Education or superintendent Raines? It certainly appears in 2015 that the cart is now in front of the horses.

If these questions go unanswered by superintendent Raines’ and/or the board, then I hope that I have at least provided that small period of awareness you need to consider when you are asked to review and determine whether the current members of the Walker County Board of Education should continue to be responsible for your children’s educational system.

Catherine Fulks, Chattanooga, Tenn.

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