In choice of superintendent finalist, Gwinnett district targets equity

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

In choosing a superintendent finalist, the Gwinnett County Board of Education tapped a candidate with roots in metro Atlanta.

Calvin J. Watts, superintendent of the Kent School District in suburban Seattle, also stood out because of his track record of commitment to educational equity — a qualification the board made a priority for any candidate.

“Those are things that, given Kent’s comparable diversity to Gwinnett, we were really excited about, as well as just his vision for how he was going to hold to what has been so successfully established here and move forward,” Chairman Everton Blair said.

ExploreGwinnett school board names superintendent finalist to succeed Wilbanks

If approved, Watts will become the first Black superintendent in the diverse Gwinnett County district, where the student population is 80% nonwhite. Black and Hispanic students each make up a third of the district, while11% are Asian or Pacific Islanders and 4% are multiracial.

The school board’s decision to tap Watts was unanimous. It’s another in a series of indicators that the face of power is changing in Gwinnett County, which in the past year inducted its first Black school board chair, commission chair, sheriff and district attorney.

Watts’ salary and start date will be negotiated before the July 29 confirmation vote, Blair said.

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

If confirmed, Watts would succeed J. Alvin Wilbanks, 78, who has led the district for 25 years. In March, the school board voted narrowly to end his contract nearly a year early, buying him out for more than $530,000. His last day is July 30.

Mary Kay Murphy, who opposed Wilbanks’ termination, said she was proud to support Watts.

“We must look forward to the next 25 years of leadership in a spirit of unity,” Murphy said.

Gwinnett County Board of Education Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, left, talks with Marshall Boutwell before a meeting of the board of education on June 17, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Gwinnett County Board of Education Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, left, talks with Marshall Boutwell before a meeting of the board of education on June 17, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In Watts’ six years as superintendent in Kent, he faced complaints over his management of a financial crisis and other issues, leading to division over his record, according to news reports.

Three years ago, teachers passed a no confidence vote in him. The school board twice extended his contract by narrow votes, according to the Kent Reporter.

Watts was not available for comment Friday. In his Gwinnett application, he said that under his leadership, Kent schools achieved record graduation rates and closed achievement gaps between Black and Hispanic students and their white peers.

Blair said the Gwinnett school board looked into the Kent district’s financial crisis and concluded that Watts inherited it from a previous administration and improved the situation. Denise Daniels, president of the Kent school board, agreed.

“It has not been an easy road over the past several years, and he has handled it all with dignity and grace and continued to stay focused on the students,” Daniels said.

With about 27,000 students, the Kent district is less than one-sixth the size of Gwinnett, but similarly diverse. Watts was that the first Black superintendent there, said Kent school board member Maya Vengadasalam.

“He’s done in an incredible job of turning around our financials,” she said.

Watts grew up in the Seattle area and went to Catholic schools there, according to his application. He earned advanced degrees in Georgia — a master’s from the University of West Georgia and a doctorate from the Atlanta campus of Argosy University, a now-defunct for-profit chain.

He taught in Seattle and metro Atlanta before working in Gwinnett County Public Schools for 13 years as an assistant principal, principal, human resources director and assistant superintendent overseeing principals. He left in 2015 for the Kent district.

“I have always referred to Gwinnett County Public Schools as the place where I grew up professionally,” Watts told the Gwinnett school board audience Thursday via video stream. “J. Alvin Wilbanks leaves a great legacy.”

ExploreGwinnett superintendent's legacy confronts increased diversity

In his application, Watts said he enjoys “most” Star Wars and Marvel movies, and that his favorite foods include collard greens, cabbage, steak, “anything fried and anything made from or with chocolate.”

“My leadership philosophy has always been to reach and teach all students as if they had my last name,” he said in the Thursday video call.

“My wife and I will now have 180,000 children and one recent high school graduate who still lives with us for the time being.”