AJC probe sparks school policy review

Gwinnett schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks will ask the school board to revise several aspects of the district’s land purchasing policy amid an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution concerning such purchases, he told the newspaper last week.

“You have pointed out something that we need to do and we’re in the process of doing that. And I sincerely thank you for that,” Wilbanks told an AJC reporter. “We’re going to update the policy. It’s going to be a better policy.”

The announcement came three days before the AJC’s publication of a second article about the district’s land purchases. The first article, published March 6, reported on four deals in which the school district bought property from developers on the same day — or, in one case, the day after — the developers got it from the previous owners. Today’s article (see page A1) centers on four other land deals with similar characteristics.

Wilbanks’s proposed policy changes address some decisions made by the district in deals scrutinized by the AJC.

“We want to ensure that, obviously, this policy meets whatever expectations” the school board members have, Wilbanks said. He said he plans to propose the following changes or clarifications at the board’s April 21 meeting:

● When making school land purchases, the district’s chief operating officer, Jim Steele, must choose from one of the sites he presents to the school board for purchase. For some of Gwinnett’s purchases, Steele has chosen property that was not on the list approved by the board, the AJC learned.

The current procedure states that, after presenting at least three possible school sites to the board, district staffers are authorized “to purchase the most appropriate site.”

In a phone interview, school board Chairman Robert McClure said he believed Steele could only choose from the list approved by the board.

Steele’s take, however, was that he could buy what his staff determined to be the most suitable piece of land, even if it was not presented to the board.

McClure said, “I don’t think that’s accurate, and therefore, we’re going to make the policy clearer so that there’s no confusion ever in the future.”

● School district staffers will have to notify the board if they get land reappraised. In one of the deals investigated by the AJC, Steele’s staff got land reappraised three months after the original two appraisals, enabling him to buy the property for much more than was initially authorized.

Two other changes appear to give the district more leeway than it has now.

Current procedures require Steele to present at least three possible school sites to the board. Under Wilbanks’ proposal, staff would be required to present three “if possible.”

Further, when buying land in order to acquire a structure that sits on it — as opposed to buying raw land — Steele will only need to present a single site to the board.