Everton Blair exits Gwinnett school board after historic four years

Gwinnett’s seen immense change since his election
Everton Blair (center) attended Shiloh High School's 2019 graduation ceremony. Blair is a graduate of the school and recently completed a term on the Gwinnett school board. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Everton Blair (center) attended Shiloh High School's 2019 graduation ceremony. Blair is a graduate of the school and recently completed a term on the Gwinnett school board. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Everton Blair made history four years ago as Gwinnett’s first Black, openly gay person and youngest person ever elected to the school board.

Blair, 30, believes Georgia’s largest school district made several improvements during his tenure, which ended last month, such as adding more academic programs, helping to increase community engagement, and hiring more paraprofessionals to assist teachers in the classroom.

Still, he sees areas for improvement, like finding ways to better serve student mental health needs and respond to the ongoing effects of the pandemic and related protocols.

Everton Blair takes an oath during his swearing-in ceremony at the Gwinnett County Board of Education office in Suwanee, Ga., on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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This Thursday will be Gwinnett’s first school board meeting since Blair’s term ended.

Blair said he will miss “being in the arena” and a part of “decisions that matter.” He helped lead the board through one of the most challenging periods in its history. The board replaced a superintendent of 25 years as it navigated the pandemic. It saw residents at board meetings decry digital learning, claims of critical race theory, mask rules and most recently student behavior and discipline.

Almost immediately after Blair’s 2021 tenure as board chair, Republican state Sen. Clint Dixon claimed Gwinnett schools were “falling off a cliff” — particularly after the board ousted Wilbanks — as he pushed to make the board elections nonpartisan. Residents who share the sentiment have pointed to Blair as a starting point for the district’s challenges.

State Sen. Clint Dixon addresses a Senate panel concerning changes he wants in Gwinnett County elections. Everton Blair, then Gwinnett's school board chair, was seated behind him. Blair opposed the measure.

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

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Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Blair doesn’t dwell on those critics, saying the board hears from “very similar voices repeatedly” at meetings. He said the board hears from many more supportive residents between the monthly meetings.

“With our board becoming much more diverse, and with the changes that generated more news, there was a lot more involvement and engagement around the decisions that we were making,” Blair said.

Three Black women are now on the five-member board.

These changes, Blair said, have contributed to more honest discussion of issues and areas of improvement. He felt in the past, the district was comfortable “resting on its laurels” rather than addressing demographic and geographic inequities.

Blair noted he was a part of approving staff raises and bonuses in addition to state raises to show appreciation. He was also glad to see more academic programs and improved student access.

Blair also highlighted work to improve support services for students, which included approving new positions. The district expanded its paraprofessional workforce by more than 500 positions over Blair’s term, according to data provided by the district. The number of social workers grew from 20 to 49, and the district hired more guidance counselors and school psychologists, the district said.

Behind the scenes, Blair, a graduate of the Gwinnett school system, said he “was able to build community across lines of difference and take the temperature down in the room at the right time so that we could be productive.”

Superintendent Calvin Watts called Blair a “model for our students of what servant leadership as an alumnus can look like.”

Blair graduated from Shiloh High School, earned degrees from Harvard and Stanford and worked for the Obama administration’s Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans before running for office. He announced a run for state school superintendent in January 2022 but pulled out of the election.

District 4′s new representative is Adrienne Simmons. Blair endorsed her in the election and the two have worked together since to foster what he says will be a smooth transition.

Blair doesn’t have concrete plans beyond the immediate future, but he’s still interested in public service. His next step is a doctoral program at Harvard.