Updated: 10:55 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, 2011 | Posted: 10:49 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Gwinnett County schools hires firm to conduct land audit
By D. Aileen Dodd
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Gwinnett County school board on Tuesday night voted to hire a former U.S. attorney to investigate district land purchases since 1999.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks recommended the board engage a third party to examine the transactions following reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that uncovered numerous land deals in which the district paid far more for parcels than developers, sometimes on the same day.
The board announced its decision to procure the services of Joe D. Whitley, former U.S. attorney for the Middle and North Georgia districts, at its Tuesday night meeting. Since 1999, school district employees have conducted 95 land transactions.
“In acquiring the sites for new schools, I believe our staff went about the people’s business with the appropriate objectives in mind: our commitment [was] to obtain the best site at the best possible price and to compensate the property owners fairly, as the law requires,” Wilbanks said in a statement. “However, it is important that not only are we confident internally of the propriety of our actions, but also that Gwinnett residents feel the same level of assurance and trust.”
Whitley, who has a private law practice, will begin his investigation immediately and provide the board with a final report within six to eight weeks, one that also will be made available to the public.
Sloan Roach, Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman, said Whitley will be considered an independent voice even though he has been hired by the school district.
“He is a third party that will be looking into this on behalf of the school board and the district,” Roach said.
Wilbanks defends the district land practices by contending Gwinnett rarely pays more than appraised value for land, but the AJC discovered the appraisals obtained by the district for the same parcel of land vary widely, often by millions of dollars.
“The courts ordered us to pay on average 26 percent more than our appraised value for 10 of the sites, and one transaction was reduced to 3 percent below appraisal,” Wilbanks explained. “This stewardship by our staff over the past 12 years allowed us to acquire school sites for $37.5 million less than the appraised value, resulting in tremendous savings for Gwinnett County taxpayers while enabling us to build new schools and additions that provided more than 3,000 classrooms to house our growing student population.”
The investigation comes as the school district nears the end of its building campaign under the current Special Local Option Sales Tax. The final school under the plan is set to open in August. School officials have said they will appeal to voters for another penny sales tax to continue adding new classrooms and schools, relieving an overcrowded Gwinnett.
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