The Gwinnett County Board of Education voted 3-2 on Thursday to buy out the contract of Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks almost a year before it was set to expire, setting July 31 as his last day.

Board members Everton Blair, Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins voted in favor of the buyout. Steven Knudsen and Mary Kay Murphy voted against it, arguing Wilbanks should be allowed to finish out his contract.

“This decision to make this motion was not taken lightly by any of us,” said Watkins, the board’s vice chair, who made the motion. “We are committed to serving the needs of all our students. … I hope our community can embrace different leadership, new leadership that can build upon our past success created by our current superintendent, Mr. Wilbanks.”

Wilbanks, 78, took the reins of Georgia’s largest and most diverse school system 25 years ago. He is the longest-serving superintendent in the country of a large school district.

He has been met with praise and criticism alike, leading Gwinnett County Public Schools to national acclaim while weathering a series of controversies.

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He is also the highest paid superintendent in Georgia, with a base salary of nearly $381,000 and a list of contractual supplements, allowances and reimbursements that boosted his pay above $621,000 last fiscal year.

Wilbanks’ contract states the school board must notify him in writing by December whether it will be renewed. The board can terminate the contract at will with 90 days’ written notice, but would have to pay Wilbanks for the remainder of the contract or one year’s salary, whichever is less.

The board’s decision on Thursday means Wilbanks will be paid 11 months’ salary.

Murphy chaired the board two years ago when members unanimously approved Wilbanks’ contract and has served on the board since 1997.

“During that time I have known Mr. Wilbanks to be ethical, honest, honorable, humble, hardworking and a visionary leader,” she said. “This is a detrimental change without a thorough and transparent search for Mr. Wilbanks’ replacement and a detailed transition plan. It is counter to the world class way the Gwinnett County public school system has operated over the last 25 years under his leadership.”

The board voted to hire the Georgia School Boards Association to help it search for the next superintendent.

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Knudsen said four months was not enough time to find a new superintendent, especially for a school district the size of Gwinnett, the country’s 13th-largest.

“There’s nothing concrete that’s driving this change, especially with the pandemic, an experience that I believe our school district has come through far better than most under Mr. Wilbanks’ leadership,” he said.

Blair, who became board chair two months ago, did not publicly explain his position before voting for the buyout. After the meeting, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was a good time to build on the school district’s successes while investing more in areas that need improvement.

“We’re going to attract some really powerful candidates, so stay tuned,” he said.

The move to terminate Wilbanks’ contract happened in the central office building named after him, right after he presented board members with certificates for “National School Board Appreciation Week.”

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” he told the audience of a few dozen people who still remained at about 10 p.m. as the meeting was ending.

“I’ve had a great career,” he said. “I’ve worked with some of the finest people that exist, most of them here in this district. … There is a time for all things and sometimes it comes about maybe in a different way than you would like it to be, but I’m going to be OK. One thing for sure, I’m probably not going to be looking for another job.”

Wilbanks said he’d be sweeping more floors and watching more dishes. “I hope my wife’s not listening,” he said.

He ended by saying, “I have always tried to do what I’m supposed to do, and I will continue to do that as long as I work here.” That garnered a standing ovation from the entire room, including the board members who voted him out.

A Jackson County native, the son of a mill worker and a farmer, Wilbanks began his career in 1964 as as a technical education teacher at Tucker High School in DeKalb County. He held several administrative posts in DeKalb and served briefly as director of technical and vocational education in Gwinnett before opening Gwinnett Technical College in 1984 as its first president.

The Gwinnett school board 12 years later brought him back to lead the district in an emergency when the then-superintendent was accused of a history of financial wrongdoing.

In the past two years, Wilbanks has been criticized for statistics that show students of color are disproportionately disciplined in Gwinnett and a for merit pay system many teachers say penalizes those who work at high-poverty schools. His decision to reopen schools in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic sparked a firestorm of public opinion on both sides.

Last year, the make-up of the school board changed and two new members elected. That created a majority more critical of Wilbanks.

Gwinnett County School Board swears in two new members Karen Watkins, left, and Dr. Tarece Johnson, right, on Dec 17, 2020. Both of the new board members voted to terminate Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks' contract early. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Gwinnett County School Board swears in two new members Karen Watkins, left, and Dr. Tarece Johnson, right, on Dec 17, 2020. Both of the new board members voted to terminate Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks' contract early. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Wilbanks led Gwinnett schools through a period of dramatic transformation. When he first took the top job in 1996, the student population was more than 80% white. The district has more than doubled in size since then, with Black and Hispanic students each making up one-third of the student population that exceeds 177,000.

By some measures, Gwinnett is now one of the country’s most diverse school districts, with students from 181 countries and 100 different home languages.

Wilbanks quickly ran into resistance in the late 1990s when he implemented the Gateway exams, a bold move that placed him in the vanguard of the high-stakes standardized test movement that former President George W. Bush nationalized with the No Child Left Behind Act. Many say the Gateway and other high-stakes tests are unfair to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and cause needless anxiety.

A state ethics panel and the Gwinnett district attorney investigated Wilbanks in 2003 after Gwinnett left thousands of serious disciplinary incidents off of a required state report. They cleared Wilbanks of ethical and criminal wrongdoing.

Two years later, he was a finalist for national superintendent of the year, bolstered in part by Gwinnett’s high standardized test scores.

He faced calls for resignation in 2008 after comments during a school board workshop on discipline that some considered racially insensitive.

The school district in 2010 won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, thought of as the most prestigious award for traditional public school districts, due to high student performance and success narrowing gaps with low-income students and students of color.

Gwinnett won the Broad award again in 2014, becoming the nation’s only traditional school district to receive it twice.

J. Alvin Wilbanks

Title: CEO/Superintendent

Where: Gwinnett County Public Schools

Years served: 25

Age: 78

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

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