Gwinnett school district is under special accreditation review

Gwinnett County Public Schools headquarters. AJC file photo
Gwinnett County Public Schools headquarters. AJC file photo

The agency that accredits local school districts will conduct a special review of the Gwinnett County system later this month in response to complaints about the board of education’s governance.

Cognia notified Gwinnett County Public Schools in April of the special review, said Mariama Tyler, agency spokeswoman. It comes after Cognia received complaints about the school board and responses to the complaints from the school district, Tyler said.

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“While we were disappointed to learn that Cognia felt a special review was necessary, it did not come as a surprise,” Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in an email. “I have warned our school board that this was a possibility.”

Cognia sent Wilbanks a letter April 19 notifying him of the special review, citing multiple complaints that suggested the school district may not be adhering to the agency’s performance standards.

“We’re ready for the Cognia interviews,” Board Chair Everton Blair said. “I think this is Cognia’s impartial response to what many in the community are saying and we have done work in Gwinnett to ensure that we are following policies and building relationships as a board.”

The review is scheduled to be conducted remotely between June 13-16. Cognia will also review documentation and interview the people involved in the complaints, including the parents and community members who lodged them as well as the superintendent and board members, Tyler said.

“We follow the evidence wherever that lies,” she said. “It’s not restricted to any one area.”

About 30 days later, the review team will issue a report to the superintendent listing findings and next steps, Tyler said. The notice said the review team would provide improvement priorities “that will require decisive action for correction” and follow-up documentation from the school district.

The Gwinnett school district will be responsible for the special review fee of $9,000, according to the letter.

The complaints filed to Cognia are confidential, but some parents and community members have publicly criticized the school board in recent months for buying out the Wilbanks’ contract.

Last year, Democrats Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins defeated longtime incumbents to win seats on the school board. When Johnson and Watkins took office in January, they joined Blair to create a nonwhite Democratic majority on the five-person board.

Those three members voted in March to oust Wilbanks, with Steven Knudsen and Mary Kay Murphy, who are white and Republican, in opposition.

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Public opinion of the new school board and its actions has become polarized, with each side accusing the other of racism and partisanship.

The Gwinnett school district is currently accredited through June 30, 2022.

Blair said the Gwinnett school board has completed double the amount of team development trainings that the Georgia School Boards Association requires. He said some of the community complaints were about oversight, operations and academic accountability.

In response, the school district plans to share how it is addressing challenges, including response to the coronavirus pandemic, Blair said.

Cognia is also reviewing the accreditation of Cobb County Schools in response to complaints that the Democratic board members there are being silenced by the Republican majority.