Gwinnett superintendent steps down from Cognia board

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Role with accrediting agency’s governing board drew some concerns among parents

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Calvin Watts resigned from the board of Cognia, the agency responsible for the accreditation of the district and thousands of other education systems.

A parent group raised concerns over Cognia’s impartiality if it were to assess Gwinnett with Watts on the board and said he shouldn’t have joined. The agency and Watts both said he was separate from accreditation functions.

“I make this decision solely because of the distraction this particular professional opportunity has caused in our district,” Watts said in a statement recently posted to the district website.

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Watts didn’t reference any specific concerns raised in the community. He previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was “thrilled to be able to discuss, monitor and support continuous improvement efforts within public education” by joining Cognia.

Watts was invited to join the board in June, and his membership began in July. He was the only public school superintendent on the board at the time, but others have served in the past.

Critics said Watts accepting Cognia’s paid board position without a vote by Gwinnett’s school board breached his contract. The district, in a statement, said Watts consulted board members, but a vote was not required because Cognia is a nonprofit rather than a business.

“I want to thank Cognia, their board and leadership team, for extending me the opportunity to serve and the grace and professionalism they have shown me as we remain united in our commitment to public education,” Watts said.

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Members of the parent group No Left Turn in Education that questioned Watts’ relationship with Cognia also previously went to the agency over concerns with the school board after a majority voted to end the contract of longtime Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks last year. That led to a special review and some recommendations of improvement for the board.

A Cognia executive addressed the board in May and said those issues were resolved and praised the district. He also announced Gwinnett retained accreditation for another five years.

A Cognia spokeswoman said the governing board is separate from all accreditation operations. The Alpharetta-based agency’s global commission oversees accreditation for 36,000 schools and school systems.

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Holly Terei, a Gwinnett parent and chair of the local chapter of No Left Turn in Education, said Cognia is “the only agency that stakeholders can utilize to ensure our school system is held to a certain standard.”

Along with a potential conflict of interest, Terei said she believes that Watts breached his contract by accepting a paid position with Cognia without board approval. The district said Watts informed board members about the position with Cognia, but did not require their approval. Terei said No Left Turn in Education is calling for the school board to remove Watts.

“Many of us are now questioning what else is overlooked by Cognia to better suit their interests and how this translates to school accreditation reviews,” Terei said. “We are also looking to our school board, wondering how our elected officials could turn a blind eye to this behavior, further creating wariness in the community.”