J. Alvin Wilbanks treated his final week as head of Georgia’s largest school district like any other, except for the time spent cleaning out his office, chatting with well-wishers and celebrating his 79th birthday.

At a farewell gathering in the district’s central office, the outgoing superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools shook employees’ hands. His eyes crinkled above his mask as if he were grinning widely.

“I feel good. It’s been a good run, a good career,” he said with characteristic understatement.

For 25 years, Wilbanks has led the school district that grew to the nation’s 13th largest under his management.

The board of education hired him in 1996, months before the Olympic torch was lit in Atlanta. He took office amid a leadership crisis when the previous superintendent resigned. Standardized testing was just beginning to take off and Wilbanks quickly came under fire for embracing it.

Gwinnett County Schools superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks speaks to Gwinnett County educators at an informal send-off for Gwinnett County Schools superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

Over the decades, Gwinnett’s standardized test scores increased, bolstering the school district’s reputation and driving the county’s growth.

Wilbanks in 2005 was a finalist for national superintendent of the year. He has advised three Georgia governors and two U.S. education secretaries on legislation.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who held the office from 1999 to 2003, praised the superintendent for maintaining high standards while overseeing Georgia’s most rapidly growing and diversifying school district.

“Alvin Wilbanks was my right-hand man on education when I was governor,” Barnes said. “I hope we can continue to call on his expertise and wisdom because he has the right answers.”

At a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce luncheon honoring Wilbanks, Barnes and other community figures praised him in speeches. The Thursday gathering drew about 300 local business leaders and politicians.

Nicole Love Hendrickson, county commission chairwoman, read a proclamation designating July 29 as “J. Alvin Wilbanks Day” in Gwinnett County.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support,” Wilbanks said. “I don’t know any community that has supported public education any more than Gwinnett County.”

During Wilbanks’ tenure, Gwinnett became the only school district in the country to win the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education twice.

At their second Broad Prize ceremony, in 2014, the Gwinnett school board voted to name the district’s central office for Wilbanks. The lobby of the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center on Wednesday was filled with employees who formed a long line to wish the superintendent farewell.

Debbie Dees said she was one of thousands of Gwinnett teachers when Wilbanks was hired. Yet, he made a point of visiting many schools and meeting with teachers, including her.

Dees, now an assistant superintendent of school improvement and operations, repeated a mantra learned from Wilbanks: “There are two types of employees in Gwinnett County Public Schools — those who teach, and those who support those who teach.”

Donna Zimmer said she’s known Wilbanks for 20 years — since she was a career specialist at Mill Creek High School. She described him as a good leader and an honest person who loves Chex Mix.

“At foundation executive board meetings, we always make sure we have Chex Mix for Mr. Wilbanks,” said Zimmer, now a community specialist for the school district’s charitable foundation.

Wilbanks’ tenure has been marked by controversies, including persistent criticism that Black students in Gwinnett are disciplined disproportionately. Many opponents said he was dismissive toward parents, community members and rank-and-file employees.

But Randolph Irwin, director of student discipline and behavior interventions, praised Wilbanks’ leadership at his retirement party this week. Irwin said the gaps in discipline rates between Black and Hispanic students and their peers are diminishing.

COVID-19 concerns and a revived social justice movement increased the turmoil during last year’s school board elections, which ended with the ouster of two longtime incumbents. The new members joined Chairman Everton Blair to form a board majority whose supporters said they wanted Wilbanks gone.

Baseball cards featuring J. Alvin Wilbanks are seen on a table at an informal send-off for Gwinnett County Schools superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks at 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

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

The board voted 3-2 in March to terminate Wilbanks’ contract nearly a year early with a payout exceeding $530,000. The board is scheduled to vote Friday on his successor. The finalist is Calvin Watts, a suburban Seattle superintendent and former Gwinnett administrator.

Irwin, who worked with Watts, called him “a brilliant man” and said Wilbanks deserved some credit for his success.

“You sort of judge someone by the fruit that they bear,” Irwin said.

Earlier this month, Blair praised the outgoing superintendent and said the buyout was a collaborative agreement.

“I’m grateful for the work you did to stabilize our incredible community during a time of immense growth and diversity,” he told Wilbanks.

Wilbanks’ education career began 56 years ago when he became an industrial arts teacher at Tucker High School in DeKalb County. He went on to administrative positions in DeKalb, Gwinnett and the Georgia Department of Education. He opened Gwinnett Technical College in 1984 as its first president.

“I never forget who schools belong to,” Wilbanks said at the luncheon. “They don’t belong to the board of education. They don’t belong to the school administration. They belong to the people.”

J. Alvin Wilbanks

Title: CEO/Superintendent

Where: Gwinnett County Public Schools

Years served: 25

Age: 79

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, University of Georgia; education specialist degree, Georgia State University

Base salary, 1996: $125,000

Base salary, 2020: $381,000 (total more than $621,000)

Contract buyout: More that $500,000