Policy debates among Gwinnett school board highlight lingering divides

The board disagreed over its hiring policy and working on an equity policy
The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Two Gwinnett County school board members pushed Thursday for the district’s hiring policy to specify the processes involved, but the majority ruled that change would be overstepping into staff operations.

It was the latest iteration of ongoing disagreements among board members about their balance of power with the superintendent and the level of fairness and equitability of existing policies.

The hiring policy came before the board Thursday because of some edits due to new state legislation and as part of a regular review process. Board Chair Tarece Johnson-Morgan said Thursday the policy should include further edits that specify expectations for administrative hiring. She suggested setting a 10-day window to advertise jobs and formalizing the rounds of interviews to ensure fairness, help candidates trust in the district’s process and protect the district from possible legal action.

The board is not involved in hiring for any jobs aside from the superintendent, but it must vote to approve his decisions.

Board member Adrienne Simmons agreed with asking for a revised policy. The rest of the board did not.

“I’m very opposed to going in this direction,” board member Mary Kay Murphy said. “Why is the board getting into the business of the superintendent? The board has its own role to play.” She said the board’s oversight should not involve specifying staff procedure.

Cathy Hardin, the district’s director of human resources, said she wasn’t opposed to setting a 10-day window, but policy changes may slow down her staff’s ability to advance employees internally or deal with sudden departures.

Board member Karen Watkins and Vice Chair Steve Knudsen sided with Murphy in moving forward as is. The policy is now available for public input for 30 days and is slated for final approval in January.

Johnson-Morgan has voted in the minority in numerous votes over several months. She was the lone vote against renewing Superintendent Calvin Watts’ contract, did not approve the district’s budget over concerns with equitable funding, and has not approved hires, including several top-level positions, because she feels the policy lacks assurances for a fair process.

Murphy and Watkins each commented that the board needed to work together better and that disagreements were impeding their progress.

“In my opinion, our board is in dire need of having some winning experiences, and it will give us the courage to move forward,” Murphy said.

Later in the meeting, Johnson-Morgan asked to resume work on emphasizing equity in the board’s mission statement outlining its approach to improving student performance. Other board members have been hesitant to work on the policy up ahead of other priorities. Knudsen, Murphy and Watkins have cited challenges following changes to the theory of action for discipline last year as a lesson in acting too quickly.

Watkins said she wants to work on the policy at the right time and with more buy-in from the board.

“I’d like to get at least one of (Knudsen or Murphy) on board so we can move forward on this and be able to start trying to build our team cohesion,” Watkins said. “Right now, we’re just so separated.”

Knudsen and Murphy repeated that it was not the right time, and the board decided against resuming discussion about the equity policy.