Gwinnett school district keeps full accreditation after special review

Calvin Watts was confirmed as the new superintendent for Gwinnett County Public Schools by the board of education at July 30, 2021 at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Calvin Watts was confirmed as the new superintendent for Gwinnett County Public Schools by the board of education at July 30, 2021 at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The agency that accredits Gwinnett County Public Schools concluded a special review without penalizing the state’s largest school district.

Cognia, which accredits most public schools in Georgia, identified priorities for the board of education and superintendent to improve, including training that focuses on ethics and conflicts of interest.

In its report, Cognia also found the Gwinnett school district budgets and allocates resources in ways that exceed the agency’s standards.

“I am pleased to report to our community that our school district remains in good standing with Cognia and our district has retained its status as a fully accredited school district,” Superintendent Calvin Watts, who assumed his post last month, said in a news release.

Cognia opened the special review in the spring, after community members complained about the school board’s behavior and student achievement. The agency’s findings, released Monday, substantiated several of the complaints made against the board. For instance, the agency said the board did not always conform to parliamentary procedure and recommended training to ensure orderly discussions.

The findings also said some board members do not use the appropriate chain of command by frequently requesting information from staff members instead of the superintendent. The report said a contentious Jan. 4 special meeting to discuss the district’s COVID-19 response was not properly called.

The Cognia team said one board member posted a video online that contained unprofessional language and another with racially offensive statements. The board member wasn’t identified.

“This review is not something that we have taken lightly,” Watts said. “Our district governance and leadership team will learn from Cognia’s findings as we move forward together.”

In response to other complaints, Cognia found that Gwinnett focuses on providing educational equity to all students and is decreasing suspensions for Black and Hispanic students. Black students in Gwinnett make up a higher percentage of disciplinary incidents than their share of the student population, but the discrepancy is lower than the statewide average, according to the report.

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A team from Cognia conducted the review remotely over four days in June, interviewing the five school board members, former superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and 124 others, including employees, students, parents and community members, according to the report. The team also reviewed numerous documents and online recordings of school board meetings.

In the news release, the district said several of Cognia’s mandates were already in place but weren’t evident to the review team. The district and school board review policies annually and make changes for compliance.

“We are excited to see that the recommendations Cognia suggested are initiatives our Board is already working on,” Board Chairman Everton Blair said in the news release. “We look forward to growing and learning together as a Board governance team with our new superintendent.”

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Two longtime incumbents were ousted on Gwinnett’s five-member school board last year, creating a majority of members who are nonwhite Democrats.

By a 3-2 vote, the board in March terminated Wilbanks’ contract early, with a payout exceeding $530,000. The board in July unanimously hired Watts, then a superintendent in suburban Seattle with 13 years of administrative experience in the Gwinnett school district.

Cognia said another review will be scheduled before May to monitor the district’s progress.

This story has been updated.