The Gwinnett County school board voted 4-1 late Tuesday to extend the contract of Superintendent Calvin Watts an additional two years.
The board made its decision at a special meeting at Peachtree Ridge High School.
“Serving our county’s students, our families and our staff for the last 20 months has been the most incredible honor of my professional career, and I am so excited to continue this work,” Watts said after the vote.
Board Chair Tarece Johnson voted against renewal without going into detail about Watts’ performance. Instead, she pointed out inequities that she said have persisted for too long.
“I see that District 5 and other historically marginalized students across this county still continue to not have their needs met, they still continue to want and need for access and opportunity,” said Johnson, who represents that district, during public remarks after the board decision.
Other board members vowed to hold Watts accountable and said they didn’t believe a change in leadership would benefit the district. Vice Chair Steve Knudsen and board member Mary Kay Murphy both said they’ve had disagreements with Watts and have disapproved of some of his actions and some parts of his performance.
Knudsen said many of the issues were a result of trying to do too much too fast. With that in mind, he said the board must make sure the change of pace is appropriate.
The school board hired Watts as superintendent in July of 2021 and gave him a two-year contract. His predecessor J. Alvin Wilbanks led the district for 25 years until the board voted to end his contract early.
Watts came to Gwinnett from Kent, Washington, where he served as superintendent. Before that, he worked for 13 years in Gwinnett in various administrative roles.
During his tenure, Watts has initiated efforts to close achievement gaps, reduce class sizes, reform school discipline and increase kindergarten readiness and literacy. The board also adopted the overarching “Blueprint for the Future” that guides many of these efforts.
Many people in the room Tuesday have consistently attended board meetings throughout Watts’ tenure to share critiques of pandemic procedures, the unsubstantiated belief critical race theory was being taught in schools, concerns over student behavior and district discipline policies and most recently disapproval of possible changes to the sex education curriculum.
“This county had a world-class, well-known school system. That’s why most of us moved here,” Lance Layson, a parent, said. “Unfortunately, it’s gone downhill.”
Several social justice organizations that have said the school system failed marginalized students and families for years released a statement Tuesday saying Watts has fallen short on his promises and “kowtowed to the loudest voices” in the room.
“There has been a lack of progress in realizing equity,” reads the letter signed by Gwinnett SToPP, the Gwinnett NAACP, Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice and the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. “We have heard from families, students and community members who all feel that new leadership has not led to meaningful progress for Gwinnett families.”
Watts has often found himself caught between critics on far opposite ends of issues, said parent Dominique Cooper.
“I don’t think he’s gotten a fair chance at all,” Cooper said.
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