Georgia’s largest school district is firing its superintendent of 25 years after a new majority took over the school board.
The Gwinnett County school board voted 3-2 on Thursday to terminate Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks on July 31, nearly a year before Wilbanks’ contract was scheduled to end.
The 78-year-old Wilbanks had already signaled that he didn’t expect to serve past June 2022.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great career. I’ve worked with some of the finest people that exist, most of them here in this district,” Wilbanks said Thursday during a school board meeting in an administration building named for him. “There’s a time for all things, and maybe sometimes it comes about in a different way than you would like it to be, but I am going to be OK.”
School board Chair Everton Blair IV said school board members wanted to accelerate the search in hopes of having a new leader in place before school begins next August.
“We’ve chosen to take this action on the contract in order to launch the superintendent search,” Blair said. “As this is a pivotal moment in our district’s history, we want to make sure we have the time needed to find the candidate of the highest caliber, who is ready to build on the many things that Mr. Wilbanks has established.”
But two board members said it was a mistake to let Wilbanks go early.
“This is detrimental change without a thorough and transparent search for Mr. Wilbanks’ replacement and a detailed transition plan,” said Mary Kay Murphy, a school board member since 1997.
With more than 177,000 students, Gwinnett County is the nation’s 13th largest school district. It twice won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, winning acclaim for maintaining high academic performance even as its student population ballooned and grew very diverse.
But Wilbanks and other district leaders faced frequent criticism that they were out of step with that 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.
Students in the district today are 33% Hispanic, 32% Black, 19% white, 11% Asian and 4% multiracial.
The board, too, is now majority nonwhite. Blair is the child of Jamaican immigrants. Newly elected board member Tarece Johnson is also Black, while newly elected board member Karen Watkins is Filipina and Black.
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 has also been a force in developing state policy, with other Georgia school districts often emulating Gwinnett or allying with it to lobby state officials. 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 made more than $621,000 in salary and other pay.
Thursday’s vote means the board will pay him 11 months’ salary even after he leaves under the terms of his contract.
More: 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. For more details, see the article by WABE’s Martha Dalton here.