The chair of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors has sued the school superintendent and three members of the county school board, claiming she was wrongfully terminated from a part-time job in the school system for the way she voted on a school funding issue.
Martha Hooker, a longtime teacher in the division, retired in 2021 but soon took a part-time role as work-based learning coordinator. She worked about two days a week under the supervision of the career and technical education director, Jason Suhr.
According to her federal lawsuit, which was filed Friday in the Western District of Virginia, the county attorney had told Hooker at least once that there was no conflict of interest for her to hold public office on the board of supervisors — which she’s done since 2016 — and also work for the school division. And in March, Suhr confirmed Hooker to continue working for the division for the 2023-2024 school year.
But on May 30, Suhr told Hooker that the school board had decided to terminate her.
Hooker alleges in the suit that her firing was retaliation for how she voted on the board of supervisors regarding funding for several major school renovation and construction projects.
In fall 2022, the board of supervisors voted to change the way it doles out money to the school division, from a lump sum to a series of payments by expense category. Hooker voted for the change, which the suit says was intended to “increase transparency and accountability.”
Hooker claims in the suit that school board chair Brent Hudson told her that the change was unacceptable and would “be an ongoing roadblock to our relationship,” and that he was derogatory and hostile during multiple phone conversations.
Hooker and Hudson both represent the Catawba District on their respective boards.
Personnel issues within a school division are typically the purview of the superintendent, not the school board. But the suit claims that in a meeting after Hooker’s termination, Superintendent Ken Nicely told Hooker that he believed that the school board didn’t want her working for the division and the board of supervisors at the same time.
“Ms. Hooker questioned Dr. Nicely regarding the school board’s involvement in a personnel decision,” the suit states, “And he said, ‘sometimes the school board gets out of their lane.'”
The suit names Hudson and Nicely along with school board members Tim Greenway and Cheryl Facciani as defendants. In the complaint, Hooker says the two other school board members, David Linden and Mike Wray, were unaware of the decision to terminate her.
School division spokesperson Chuck Lionberger said Monday that the division doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Hudson, Greenway and Facciani did not respond to requests for comment.
The suit claims that the defendants violated Hooker’s First Amendment rights by retaliating against her for decisions she made in her capacity as an elected official. Hooker’s attorney, Thomas Strelka, said in an interview Monday that there was no conflict of interest in Hooker’s employment with the school division, as her role as a county supervisor didn’t interfere with it. Further, her job at the school division didn’t benefit from her elected position.
In the complaint, Hooker outlines how the three school board members who she believes are responsible for her ouster aligned themselves with her opponent in the primary election for her board of supervisors seat.
Pastor and former school board member Thomas McCracken announced in April that he would challenge Hooker for her seat in the June Republican primary.
In the lawsuit, Hooker claims that Hudson, Greenway and Facciani participated in a photo opportunity with McCracken in April instead of attending the joint board of supervisors/school board signing of an agreement to fund the construction of a new career and technical school and the remodeling of two elementary schools.
The suit claims that their joint appearance violated state law because it was a gathering of three or more school board members in their official capacity without public notice.
McCracken dropped out before the June primary, but ballots had already been printed and he received a total of 135 votes, compared to about 1,000 for Hooker. Hooker won reelection this month with just short of 97% of the vote in her unopposed race.
Hudson, Greenway and Facciani are known as the board’s conservative bloc, though the board voted unanimously in August to adopt the state’s new guidelines restricting the rights of transgender and nonbinary students at school.
McCracken was vocal in his support of the school board during the intense debate about the issue over the summer. He hosted a prayer rally in support of the board in September.