Gwinnett school superintendent’s board service raises ethics concern

Cognia, school district say there’s no conflict of interest despite complaints from parent group

Gwinnett County Superintendent Calvin Watts serves on the board of the nonprofit agency that accredits the district and thousands of others around the world.

A conservative parent group that has been critical of Watts and other leaders in Gwinnett schools said the relationship is inappropriate and inhibits parents’ ability to bring issues to the agency, Cognia, to hold district leaders accountable.

Gwinnett and Cognia said there is no conflict of interest.

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“Cognia is the only agency that stakeholders can utilize to ensure our school system is held to a certain standard. And now Cognia has invited the GCPS superintendent to sit on their board — the very board that is to assess Watts as our superintendent and the handling of Georgia’s largest school district,” said Holly Terei, a Gwinnett parent and chair of the local chapter of No Left Turn in Education.

No Left Turn is a national network of local organizers that mobilizes parents to be more involved in public education. Its website states members promote “fact-based teaching” and battle against indoctrination. Terei said she’s questioned school board members and Cognia about Watts’ role, along with discussing her concerns with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mariama Tyler, a spokeswoman for Cognia, said the board oversees the agency’s finances, nonprofit compliance and overall pursuit of mission. “By design, the Cognia Board of Directors has no authority or influence over accreditation matters. The board does not set policy, nor does it establish standards, or procedures for the accreditation of institutions and systems,” Tyler said.

The Cognia Global Commission oversees all of the agency’s accreditation work. Watts is not part of the commission.

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Cognia, which is based in Alpharetta, accredits 36,000 primary and secondary public and private schools.

“Neither I, the Cognia team, nor our GCPS Board of Education would consider a position that would jeopardize my integrity or that of either organization,” Watts said in a statement provided by the district. “I am thrilled to be able to discuss, monitor and support continuous improvement efforts within public education.”

Tyler said the board selects potential members for interviews, and Watts’ leadership of a complex and large public school system brings valuable expertise and perspective. The board interviewed Watts in May and voted to appoint him in June. He joined the board in July.

Watts is the only member of the nine-person board who leads a K-12 school district, but other superintendents have previously served on the board, Tyler said. She said board members receive a stipend for meetings they attend “in recognition of the work necessary to prepare and engage.” Board members each received stipends of $21,000 in 2020, the most recent year with available data in a database maintained by ProPublica, an investigative news outlet.

Terei said she believes Watts serving on Cognia’s board “looks and feels corrupt, or at the very least unethical.” She also thinks it may be a breach of contract.

Watts’ contract says he needs board approval to seek or accept a job or payment from a business or commercial enterprise, according to a review by the AJC. District spokeswoman Melissa Laramie said Watts spoke to board members individually about the Cognia board position. The school board did not have to give approval because Cognia is a nonprofit, not a business, Laramie said.

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Parents triggered a Cognia special review of the Gwinnett school board last year after the controversial decision to end the contract of 25-year Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.

Cognia’s investigation identified the board following its own policies and working within its defined roles as areas of improvement. In May of this year, an agency official said the district had resolved those issues and had also retained its accreditation for five years. Andre Harrison, vice president of Cognia, gave high praise, particularly for the district’s curriculum and instruction.

Terei said she was among the parents who requested the special review. She said Watts joining Cognia’s board weeks after Harrison spoke to the board raised questions about the fairness of its assessments, jeopardizing the community’s confidence in Cognia and Watts.