Gwinnett names superintendent finalist to succeed Wilbanks

Calvin Watts, the finalist for superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Courtesy Kent School District
Caption
Calvin Watts, the finalist for superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Courtesy Kent School District

Credit: Kent School District

If confirmed, he will be the school district’s first Black superintendent

The Gwinnett County Board of Education on Thursday named Calvin Watts, currently serving as superintendent of the Kent School District in Washington state, as its pick for the next superintendent of Georgia’s largest school district.

The vote was unanimous.

Watts addressed the audience at Thursday’s meeting via videoconference from Washington state. He said he worked for Gwinnett for 13 years as an administrator.

“I proudly accept this opportunity to serve as your next superintendent,” he said. “I look forward to seeing you and working with you very soon.”

Fourteen days must now pass before the school board takes a final vote on making a job offer, according to Georgia law. If confirmed, Watts will be the first Black superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Watts is a former assistant superintendent in Gwinnett. He would follow J. Alvin Wilbanks, whose contract ends at the end of the month after a 25-year run as the longest-serving superintendent of a large school district in the United States.

The Georgia School Boards Association handled the search. The position received 27 applications, a fraction of the number of superintendent applications received in Buford, DeKalb County and Atlanta Public Schools in recent years.

State law says school boards must announce between one and three finalists and release all the documents the board received in connection with the finalists. Many boards announce single finalists to avoid identifying others who are not ultimately picked.

Watts would take over the 13th-largest school district in the nation, with about 180,000 students.

03/24/2021 —Suwanee, Georgia — Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent and CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks speaks with Burnette Elementary School parents and staff during a meeting in the school’s library in Suwanee, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/24/2021 —Suwanee, Georgia — Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent and CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks speaks with Burnette Elementary School parents and staff during a meeting in the school’s library in Suwanee, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Gwinnett schools in the Wilbanks era went from 80% white to 80% nonwhite, with Black and Hispanic students each making up one third of the district and 11% are Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

The community has grown increasingly divided over equity and race relations, a tension that manifested itself in school board elections last year, when two Democratic candidates of color ousted two white longtime incumbents. With its new composition, the school board voted narrowly to end Wilbanks’ contract nearly a year early, buying him out for more than $530,000.

Today, parents, teachers and community members are openly fighting over multiple issues including Wilbanks’ ouster, masks in schools and classroom discussions about race. Community members complained to Cognia, the agency that accredits most Georgia school districts, about the school board’s behavior. Cognia investigated the complaints this month and expects to issue its findings in mid-August.

ExploreGwinnett superintendent’s legacy confronts increased diversity

Watts would also be tasked with spearheading Gwinnett County Public Schools’ recovery from the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic while closing achievement gaps the pandemic is expected to exacerbate.

Wilbanks, 78, is credited with leading the school district through a period of breakneck growth while establishing a reputation of high student achievement.

Gwinnett is the only school district in the country to twice win the Broad Prize for Urban Education, awarded in part for narrowing achievement gaps. But uneven academic performance persists in Gwinnett along racial lines, and for students with disabilities and native languages other than English. Some of Wilbanks’ detractors dismiss the awards and the foundation that gave them.

Many in the community have also criticized Gwinnett’s discipline statistics, which show the students punished are disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Superintendent finalist

Who: Dr. Calvin J. Watts

Currently: Superintendent of Kent School District in Washington state

Formerly: Assistant superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools

Also: Seattle Public Schools, Atlanta Public Schools, Carrollton City Schools (Georgia) and the Archdiocese of Atlanta

Education: B.A., Howard University; M.A. University of West Georgia; Ed.D., Argosy University in Atlanta