The state’s largest school district will soon launch a national search for a new superintendent. The Gwinnett County school board voted 3-2 last week to go ahead with the search, even though current Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks has more than a year left on his contract.
Planning An Exit Strategy
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Wilbanks informed the board he planned to step down when his contract ends in July of 2022. Gwinnett County School Board Chair Everton Blair said the entire board met with Wilbanks several times privately to discuss his departure.
“My overall priority was to let everybody’s voice be heard, to seek consensus, to find the common ground whereby we could get the majority of the board on a page that the superintendent also supported,” Blair said. “Not just an action that was done to him, but that he wanted. And that was where we ended up with this decision.”
Wilbanks has served as Gwinnett’s superintendent since March of 1996. The district says he’s the longest-serving superintendent of a large, urban school system. Everton Blair, the now-school board chair, started Kindergarten in the Gwinnett schools in the fall of 1996, during Wilbanks’ first full school year as superintendent.
“I saw the expansion,” said Blair, a graduate of Gwinnett’s Shiloh High School. “I lived through the growth and diversity. I lived through the growth in opportunity and resources and the expansion of excellence in the system, and I think that stability and longevity is the strength of our leadership context today and gives us a great opportunity to build.”
Gwinnett voters elected two new board members in November. Before that, the board had a Republican majority. Now, it has two Republicans and three Democrats. The board’s demographics have also shifted recently. The once-all-white school board now has three members of color. About 78 percent of students in Gwinnett are students of color.
“It’s honestly a moment for a new leader to come in as a new board has formed,” Blair said. “If you think about this in kind of a greater political landscape when a huge governmental entity shifts power, it is usual that the appointed roles that fall under that governmental authority also change.”
Blair says the board shift alone isn’t a reason to go forward with the search, but he says he wanted to give the body more time to conduct the process.
‘We Have Time’
Despite many meetings about the strategy and timing of Wilbanks’ departure, two board members still voted against the decision to go ahead with the search.
Dr. Mary Kay Murphy was the board chair two years ago when the board unanimously voted to extend Wilbanks’ contract.
“I have been a board member every year of Mr. Wilbanks’ leadership,” she said. “During that time, I have known Mr. Wilbanks to be ethical, honest, honorable, humble, hard-working and a visionary leader respected by senators, governors, representatives, business leaders, educators, grateful families, and community members.”
Board member Steve Knudsen said the board doesn’t need to start the search process right now.
“There’s really no way that I’ve heard that convinces me [of] the ‘why’ behind why we are doing this,” he said. “I’ve challenged my fellow board members … to get me the why. We have time. Mr. Wilbanks’ contract runs until June 30 of 2022.”
But Blair said starting the process now will give the board more time to come up with solutions if they run into problems along the way.
“I just didn’t want to have us in a position where we were scrambling next year at this time to try to understand the reality of how large and how significant this leadership transition would be and then not have a next step or next phase,” he said.
The board voted unanimously (5-0) to have the Georgia School Boards Association lead the superintendent search. It hopes to have someone in place by this July before the school year begins. If that doesn’t happen, Wilbanks could stay for a few more months or potentially until next July when his contract ends. If the board finds a replacement for Wilbanks before July 2022, it will pay out his contract or his yearly salary of about $621,000.
At the end of the board’s March 18 meeting, Wilbanks addressed the concerns of Knudsen, Murphy, and others.
“This is the 18th day of my 56th year in this business,” he said. “So, don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great career.”