Gwinnett schools: Buyout of Wilbanks’ contract stirs debate

J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, listens to public comment during a school board meeting on July 16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, listens to public comment during a school board meeting on July 16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Gwinnett County Board of Education’s recent decision to buy out the final 11 months of Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract came as a surprise to many.

There isn’t unanimous agreement on whether the $530,731 payout is money well spent — not among the community or even the board that voted 3-2 to set Wilbanks’ last day for July 31.

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Board member Steven Knudsen voted against terminating Wilbanks’ contract early in part because he objected to spending the money without a transition plan.

“From a fiscal perspective, by separating this way, I don’t think it’s a wise use of our money,” Knudsen said. “We’re going to end up double paying for a superintendent.”

Michael Rudnick, who has a son in the school system, echoed Knudsen’s concerns during the public comment portion of the recent school board meeting.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the need for one year of expediting the dismissal of this contract outweighs the hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s going to cost the county,” Rudnick said. “You have handicapped this county and your search will provide a less than satisfactory resolution for one million people and 200,000 children in this county.”

Wilbanks’ contract allows the board to unilaterally terminate his employment without cause as long as he gets “all of the aggregate salary he would have earned” until the end of the contract or a year’s salary, whichever is less.

The payout is about three-tenths of a percent of the school system’s proposed $1.8 billion operating budget for next fiscal year. For Brian Westlake, president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators and a frequent critic of Wilbanks, the expense is worthwhile if the new superintendent better supports students and staff.

“What he’s being paid for that period dwarfs in comparison to the budget for Gwinnett County Public Schools,” Westlake said. “You’re starting a year sooner and I think starting a year sooner makes a big difference in the life of a child.”

Board member Tarece Johnson said the district would not suffer financially for Wilbanks’ payout. She joined Board Chair Everton Blair and Vice Chair Karen Watkins in voting to end Wilbanks’ contract early “for the board’s convenience.” They praised Wilbanks, but also called for greater equity in Gwinnett schools.

“There’s always a cost-benefit to everything,” Johnson said. “We also have opportunities to create new successes built on the foundation he set.”

Wilbanks has led the Gwinnett district for 25 years, the longest tenure in the country among superintendents of large school systems.

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