Education, News

Gwinnett County Board Of Education Chooses New Superintendent

The Gwinnett County Board of Education voted to name Calvin Watts as its superintendent. Watts would be Gwinnett County's first Black superintendent.
The Gwinnett County Board of Education voted to name Calvin Watts as its superintendent. Watts would be Gwinnett County's first Black superintendent.
Credit Martha Dalton / WABE
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Georgia’s largest school district is bringing one of its own home to take over as superintendent after board members ousted a longtime leader.

The Gwinnett County Board of Education voted 5-0 Thursday to name Calvin Watts as its sole finalist to become the district’s superintendent.

Watts has been superintendent of the 26,000-student Kent, Washington, school district since 2015. But before that, Watts worked for 13 years in Gwinnett County as the district sprawled to its current 177,000 students, rising from assistant principal at an elementary school to assistant superintendent for school improvement and operations.

“I proudly accept this opportunity to serve as your next superintendent,” Watts told school board members during a Thursday night meeting via videoconference. “I look forward to seeing you and working with you very soon.”

The board must wait 14 days by state law before it can confirm its choice of Watts. He would be the first Black superintendent in Gwinnett County.

Watts would follow Alvin Wilbanks, who has led the district for 25 years. Board members voted in March to fire Wilbanks a year earlier than he had planned to retire, after a new majority took over the school board. Wilbanks will now leave on July 31, although the board will keep paying him his $621,000 in salary and other compensation through June 2022.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that 27 people applied during the search, which was run by the Georgia School Boards Association. That’s fewer than the number of people who applied to be superintendent in Buford, DeKalb County and Atlanta in recent years.

Wilbanks’ ouster has underlined tensions in a district that was once overwhelmingly white but is now 33% Hispanic, 32% Black, 19% white, 11% Asian and 4% multiracial.

The district grew into a powerhouse under Wilbanks’ leadership, opening school after new school and creating a principal training program to cultivate its own leaders. Its reputation has been a magnet for new residents.

The county developed a homegrown curriculum and homegrown exit exams under Wilbanks, imposing requirements beyond the state for students to graduate. Gwinnett also launched a merit pay system for teachers that drew complaints that it was harder for teachers who work in high-poverty schools to earn top pay.

Wilbanks and other district leaders faced criticism that they were out of step with the diverse population. In 2019, for example, some protested racial disparities in school discipline. Some teachers also protested last year when the district, like most in Georgia, pushed forward with in-person classes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other school districts nationwide, Gwinnett has also seen clashes in recent months over whether masks should be required and what teachers should tell students about race.

Some of those clashes sparked complaints to accrediting agency Cognia, which is investigating and supposed to issue findings next month.