Gwinnett superintendent’s legacy confronts increased diversity

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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

When J. Alvin Wilbanks took the helm of Gwinnett County Public Schools in 1996, the district was less than half its current size and 80% white.

He didn’t expect to stay longer than four years. He lasted 25.

Gwinnett now is the 13th-largest school district in the United States with 177,000 students. It’s also one of the most diverse: 33% Hispanic, 32% Black, 20% white, 11% Asian or Pacific islanders and 4% multiracial.

Recently, the school board voted 3-2 to end Wilbanks’ contract nearly a year early. His legacy is marked by great successes, but also division over whether the system he built suits the district’s diversity.

“I think we can improve in about everything that we do, but you can’t always just turn a switch and change,” said Wilbanks, 78, soon after the board set his last day for July 31.

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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

During his tenure, he garnered national acclaim as Gwinnett schools amassed academic awards. Student test scores remain relatively high.

But racial and ethnic gaps persist in student achievement and discipline rates, fueling tension within the district.

That strife manifested itself in last year’s school board race. Two longtime white incumbents lost to women of color, who promised a greater focus on equity. Three of five board members are now nonwhite Democrats who are younger and live farther south than the two white Republicans.

It was those three who voted to buy out Wilbanks’ contract, which will amount to more than $500,000. As Georgia’s highest paid superintendent, Wilbanks’ base salary is $381,00 but jumped above $621,000 with additional allowances last fiscal year.

ExploreNew Gwinnett school board majority plans to bring change

“Mr. Wilbanks wasn’t fired because he’s white, that’s very clear,” said Everton Blair Jr., who became the school board’s first Black member two years ago.

“He wasn’t fired because he’s old,” he said. “This was a transition that was going to take place. There is a leadership change that set forth a direction and a division.”

Points of strife

A flashpoint for Wilbanks’ critics is student discipline.

For the past two years, half of the students disciplined in the district were Black, with in-school suspension as the most common punishment.

In addition, students in Gwinnett’s disciplinary alternative schools are disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Wilbanks said the school district looks for ways to improve discipline.

But for some, including Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the statistics lent urgency to ousting the superintendent.

“He needs to go now,” Poole said days before the board voted to buy him out. “He has taken away children’s hopes and dreams, put them on a path they can never get out of.”

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County Public Schools

But nationally, the Gwinnett district is lauded for closing academic disparities.

In 2010 and 2014, Gwinnett won the Broad Prize for Urban Education — the only district to win it twice. The prize is awarded districts for student achievement and “narrowing achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color.”

School board chair Blair credits Wilbanks with narrowing academic gaps relative to school districts across the country.

“Is the bar low? Yeah,” he said.

Everton Blair, chair of the Gwinnett County School District's board of education. (File photo)
Everton Blair, chair of the Gwinnett County School District's board of education. (File photo)

Gwinnett fixture

Wilbanks, the son of a mill worker and a farmer, grew up in Jackson County as the youngest of six children.

He became a technical education teacher at Tucker High School in DeKalb County before working his way into administrative positions in DeKalb, Gwinnett and the Georgia Department of Education. In 1984, Gwinnett Technical College tapped him as its first president.

George Thompson, the Gwinnett school system’s superintendent in the early 1990s, said he prepared Wilbanks to succeed him, naming him as the district’s head of human resources in addition to Gwinnett Tech’s leader.

“When I resigned, I was hoping the board would appoint him as superintendent,” said Thompson, now a leader of a Kentucky-based education nonprofit. “I thought he would be the best person for the job.”

Thompson said Wilbanks’ humility masked his leadership capabilities.

“You wouldn’t think that he was as knowledgeable about education as he was,” Thompson said. “I had a lot of trust and faith in him.”

The board instead chose Sidney Faucette, who within a year became embroiled in a financial scandal in his previous district in Virginia. When Faucette resigned in March 1996, then-Board Chair Louise Radloff called Wilbanks.

Radloff, whose 48-year school board tenure ended last year, recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she knew Wilbanks had a strong work ethic and was a family man who taught Sunday school.

“He had been very successful at Gwinnett Tech,” Radloff said. “He’s a straight shooter.”

Berney Kirkland, who retired last year as Wilbanks’ chief of staff, was the school district spokeswoman the night Wilbanks was hired.

“He told me then that he was going to need my help, and for the next 25 years I had the best job in the school district, directly supporting the man I believe will be remembered as one of the greatest superintendents in the history of public education,” Kirkland said in an email.

She and others described Wilbanks as a calm person with a polite air and a wry sense of humor who set an orderly, professional tone in district offices.

Many of his former employees have gone on to lead other districts.

“His development of other education leaders should be a significant part of Mr. Wilbanks’ legacy,” Kirkland said.

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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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 on March 24, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

The challenges

Soon after being named the Gwinnett district’s superintendent, Wilbanks faced backlash as an early champion of standardized testing.

Radloff and board member Mary Kay Murphy disagreed with the tests because there was initially no appeal process if a child failed. Murphy, a former English teacher who still serves on the school board, said she sympathized with critics who wanted testing to be purely diagnostic.

Radloff and Murphy said Wilbanks considered their point of view and then delayed implementation by a year to hear community concerns. He ultimately made concessions, such as giving students multiple opportunities to pass.

“I became a complete convert,” said Murphy, who recently voted against ending Wilbanks’ contract early.

As standardized test scores improved, so did the reputation of Gwinnett’s schools. In 2005, Wilbanks was one of four finalists for national superintendent of the year.

During his tenure, he faced other struggles.

For instance, when Gwinnett underreported its serious disciplinary incidents to the state in 2003, the district attorney and a state ethics panel investigated. Wilbanks was cleared of wrongdoing.

Brian Westlake, president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators, said the district under Wilbanks did not adequately collaborate with employees and community members.

“There’s been a tremendous focus on ranking of schools, based primarily on traditional measures such as standardized tests, rather than diagnosing what is perhaps reducing the opportunities for students to succeed,” he said.

The pandemic

Wilbanks told The AJC his biggest challenge as superintendent came last August, when he decided to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision sparked backlash from many employees and parents, though students could still opt for remote learning.

“Kids need to be in school, and this year, we’ve had to remind ourselves that this is about kids,” Wilbanks said.

Since August, the school district reported more than 4,800 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.

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By the time the school board started discussing Wilbanks’ contract, vaccines were rolling out. He said his handling of the pandemic was not a factor in discussions about his performance.

In public statements, he’s gracious about his exit.

“Ten years from now, I want to read about Gwinnett County Public Schools again being the best schools in the nation,” he said.

He said others can worry about how to define his legacy.

“I have enjoyed my 25 years,” Wilbanks said. “I think this school district has done a good job educating kids during that time.”

On July 24, 2020, parents, students and supporters rallied outside Gwinnett Schools Instructional Support Center, which bears the superintendent's name. There were protesting the district's plan for the upcoming school year, which was later broadened to include both in-person and online-only learning. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
On July 24, 2020, parents, students and supporters rallied outside Gwinnett Schools Instructional Support Center, which bears the superintendent's name. There were protesting the district's plan for the upcoming school year, which was later broadened to include both in-person and online-only learning. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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

Wilbanks’ base salary history

1996: $125,000

2005: $263,800

2016: $310,000

2020: $381,000 (total more than $621,000)

Contract buyout: More than $500,000

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