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Informational forum on commissioner referendum set for Sept. 25

A neighborhood Town Hall informational meeting on the Nov. 6 referendum to change the form of government in Walker County from a sole commissioner to a five-member board will be held Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 6:30 p.m. at Ridgeland High School.

The informational forum will be in the school's Theater or auditorium at the corner of Happy Valley Road and Ga. Highway 2. A moderator will lead the forum, Walker County GOP Chairman Mike Cameron will present a history of the referendum effort, and Dade County District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff will lead a discussion of the pros and cons of both forms of government. Attending the discussion will be elected officials favoring each form of county government.

Other officials invited to participate in the forum include Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, Walker schools Superintendent Damon Raines, and others.

Residents attending the forum are encouraged to ask questions of participants during a Q&A session as well as to share their own opinions during an open mike comments time.

The purpose of the meeting is to provide as much information as possible to ensure that each resident/voter will be the best informed he or she can be before this very important vote Nov. 6 in the county and the county's future. Everyone is invited and encouraged to attend the forum sponsored by the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group.

Walker deputy cleared in fatal shooting

On Sept. 4, a grand jury cleared Walker County Deputy John Chandler of any charges related to a New Year's Day fatal shooting prompted by a 911 call later deemed a false report.

The jury reviewed the evidence in the case and agreed with a January internal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Sheriff's Department, which found Chandler did not commit any crimes or violate any department policies in the shooting. The jury said he did not act with criminal intent when he shot Mark Parkinson through a window during a call to Parkinson's Rossville home.

According to Parkinson's wife, Diane, her husband walked into the kitchen with a handgun after hearing a commotion outside and his dogs barking. Seeing the gun, Deputy Chandler shot three times through the window from the porch and killed him, as one bullet severed Parkinson's jugular vein.

"He meant to do me harm," Chandler said during the internal affairs investigation.

"We recognized it was a tragic, tragic situation," Sheriff Steve Wilson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press Wednesday, Sept. 5. "We still support the facts that the officer acted within policy and within the laws of the state."

Offices responded to a 911 call that a woman inside threatened to kill her children and herself. The call, by Dorothy Gass, mother-inlaw of Parkinson's daughter, Amy Gass, was not legitimate, GBI agents later determined. It was part of a custody dispute.

Gass was originally charged by the GBI of intentionally filing a false report, was arrested and released pending her trial. Walker County State Court Judge Billy Mullinax dropped the false report charge on June 13 after a GBI agent did not show up on Gass's court date.

Agent Greg Ramey said his office wrote Mullinax a letter, asking him to push the court date back because the investigating agent was out of town that particular day. Ramey said his office didn't hear back from Mullinax and learned several weeks later that Mullinax had dropped the charge.

State Court Solicitor Chris Townley told the Chattanooga Times Free Press again Wednesday that the case is essentially dead because of a legal technicality. Townley, who took office Sept. 1, worked at the same law firm as an attorney representing Dorothy Gass's son in his divorce to Amy Gass.

Townley said, therefore, that he is not allowed to touch the case, although another prosecutor could re-open the case and Townley could recuse himself. However, he explained for the Times Free Press, since the charge against Gass of filing a false report was already dropped, even re-opening her case would require action by him.

Hymn singing Oct. 13 to benefit county debt

An old-fashioned hymn singing is scheduled Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Walker County Civic Center as a benefit fundraiser for Walker County debt reduction.

A pre-program Roundup begins at 6 p.m., with the singing beginning at 7 p.m. Program MC and song leader Ray C. Burnfin said that every song will be from the old Broadman Hymnal and the evening will be one of worship, prayer and praise.

An evening of "Songs of the Broadman" will have the emphasis on the doctrinal messages of the old hymns with which many grew up in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The hymnal, published in 1940, includes 500 hymns and choruses, with an emphasis on Jesus, following Jesus, and living and working for the Lord, said Burnfin.

Tickets for the evening of worship and fellowship are available through The Bank of LaFayette, 706-638-2520, the sole ticket agent for the singing. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for those ages 6-9, and free for all under 6 years old.

A table featuring recordings and publications will also be available at the singing.

Walker Rocks startup challenge winner gets $5,000

In September $5,000 will be on the line when three local entrepreneurs compete in the first ever Walker Rocks Start-up Challenge.

The Walker Rocks Start-up Challenge is a pitch competition designed to help a recreational, travel or hospitality business get started or expand in Walker County, building on the momentum created by the launch of Walker Rocks this summer.

Walker Rocks highlights the scenic and stunning destinations available in Walker County for rock climbing, caving, kayaking, hiking, biking and other outdoor adventures. The new tourism initiative embraces the county's environmental assets and invites outdoor enthusiasts to come play.

Back Archer Farms, Tess de'Carlo and Battlefield Outdoors will present their ideas to a panel of judges at a pitch event on Thursday, Sept. 20. Each finalist will have 10 minutes to describe his or her idea and field questions from the judges. The competition begins at 4:00 p.m. at the Walker County Civic Center and is free and open to the public.

A $5,000 start-up grant, funded by a partnership between the Walker County Chamber of Commerce and Peach State Federal Credit Union, will be awarded the winner. The grant funds will be distributed to the winner in the form of a reimbursement for documented expenses.

Educator association continues challenging school system

A Walker County educators group says it will continue challenging the school system's controversial grading system; the system's policy for addressing the school board; and why the system is losing 10-15 percent of its teachers yearly.

"If we see policies that may harm our kids, we want to and need to speak up and address these issues without fear and intimidation," said Jim Barrett, president of the county's Association of Educators.

"We have and must use our voice to promote what is good for our kids here," he said.

Grading policy

Barrett said the school system's grading policy is seriously flawed.

"We still have tremendous concerns about the grading policy, the grading fiasco," Barrett said.

The policy, he said, allows students to retake tests or parts of tests if they aren't satisfied with their grade, he said.

Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said the policy allows students "the opportunity to show me what they know."

Barrett, further criticizing the policy, said teachers can grade students only on their tests — not homework, class work, and other non-test activities. While students' performance on these activities is rated on a scale of 1-4, those evaluations do not affect their final grade, Barrett said. Knowing these activities really don't count can then make students less accountable in doing them, he said.

Debbie Baker, vice president for the association, said students "are taught in high school to be lazy." The result, she said, is that when they get to college, even some of the best AP (advanced placement) and honors students struggle because they aren't held accountable in middle and high school.

"If we can't hold the student accountable for anything outside the classroom," Baker said, "they don't have to study outside of the classroom."

With the lack of total assignment assessment and accountability and the county's retest policy, often or usually using the same test the student took the first time, Barrett and Baker said the county's grading policy too often ends up being "Given them a D and set them free." The current policy, they argue, really hurts the students, their future educational endeavors and their preparation for and performance in their jobs and careers.

Policy for addressing school board

Another ongoing issue that concerns Barrett and his association of county educators is the superintendent's policy whereby residents could bring concerns and address the county school board.

That policy said a resident must first meet with the superintendent in private, who would then investigate the concerned issue and give the resident a written report within 10 days. If the resident still wanted to address the board, he or she had to submit a request in writing at least a week in advance of the meeting at which they wished to speak.

Barrett filed a lawsuit in 2015 against that policy, saying it violated the First Amendment free speech provision. He won his case in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11 th Circuit, and the lawsuit was settled in July 2018. The court ruled the policy unconstitutional, struck down the policy, and ordered Superintendent Damon Raines to rewrite its policy. To date, Barrett said no replacement policy has been implemented.

Barrett had tried to meet with Raines in May and August 2014 about the new grading policy. He then emailed Raines Jan. 20, 2015, asking to speak at the next school board meeting. Raines met with Barrett on Jan. 28, 2015, at which time Barrett gave the superintendent his concerns about the new policy in writing. On Feb. 9, 2015, Raines gave Barrett a written response to the issues Barrett had raised.

Barrett then asked for and sent a letter that day requesting to speak before the board at its Feb. 17, 2015, meeting. Raines said he did not receive the letter until Feb. 11, less than a week before the board meeting, and therefore rejected Barrett's request to speak. Raines later offered to let Barrett speak at the March 10 school board meeting, but by then Barrett had contacted lawyers and was in the process of filing a "freedom of speech" lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy wrote in his ruling in the case on April 4, 2016, that the board's policies were "facially unconstitutional" in that the policy should guarantee people the chance to speak in a timely manner and that the school system should not try to prevent residents from criticizing school employees. Murphy said that everyone, and especially teachers, should be able to talk directly to their school board about issues of public concern to them and to their students. The judge also granted an injunction against Raines and the school district policy and told the board to revise its policy and procedure appropriately.

The board appealed Murphy's decision, and on Oct. 2, 2017, a three justice panel for the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Murphy's ruling.

Teacher retention

On the matter of teacher attrition, Barrett said the county is losing 100-150 teachers yearly.

That is up to 15 percent of the county's 1,000-plus teacher base each year, he said.

The county has lost about 50% of its teaching force in the last five years, he said.

Questions that need to be examined and answered, the association maintains, are: Where are these teachers going? Why are they leaving the Walker County school system?

Other priorities

Barrett said his organization also has concerns regarding school-sponsored fundraisers. Barrett said he and his members have been getting more phone calls about the schools' fundraising and fundraisers policy than anything else. Thus, the association will be examining that policy carefully this year.

Barrett said another issue is leadership development within the organization, within schools and within buildings.

"Leadership is the responsibility of everyone," he said.

School children especially need to see and have strong leadership since many do not have it in their homes, families and neighborhoods. Teachers, therefore, have both the opportunity and responsibility to be strong leaders and role models for their students, echoed Baker.

Related to leadership is professional development, where each teacher learns and grows throughout the school year. And as they become stronger and better teachers, their students become stronger and better students.

An additional concern and goal for the teachers is to encourage and see greater public interest and involvement. This can take the form of being a substitute teacher or substitute bus driver, or being a volunteer in a classroom or for a class field trip. Involvement also includes attending parental meeting, PTO meetings, and even county school board meetings. The more parents are informed, knowledgeable, and involved, the better students their children will be. The more interest parents have in their children's educational process and progress, usually the more interested and committed their children are to their education.