Buford’s new school superintendent tasked with repairing a community

Buford City Schools Superintendent Robert Downs poses for a portrait at the Buford City Schools Central Office in Buford, Ga., on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Buford City Schools Superintendent Robert Downs poses for a portrait at the Buford City Schools Central Office in Buford, Ga., on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

When the recording of a profane, racist rant, complete with threats of violence against temporary workers surfaced last year, the tight-knit Buford community was shocked to discover the voice behind those words belonged to beloved schools chief Gaye Hamby.

In the recordings, a man uses a racial epithet repeatedly as he demeans black construction workers. Eventually, school board members agreed it was, indeed, Hamby.

Hundreds of parents and students filed into the tiny school board meeting room weeks after school opened demanding Hamby be fired. Tempers flared with the August heat.

The news made headlines as far away as England and Australia. Buford’s long-standing reputation as a congenial, bucolic hamlet in the northern Atlanta suburbs was tarnished. Even after Hamby was removed, the damage seemed irreparable.

A year later, the new leader for the small school district has vowed to begin healing this fractured community and to help rebuild public trust in Buford City Schools.

“My leadership style is to be very approachable,” Robert Downs said. “And I’m not just open to parents — I’ve talked to people whose children are grown up and those who’ve never had children in the school system. Everyone in Buford has a stake in school success.”

School governance experts agree that Downs has a daunting task ahead.

“Building trust in the community is going to be a key component in his transition,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, a national advocacy and training organization for public education leadership. “He’ll have to begin with engagement to overcome the hurt produced by his predecessor.”

The allegations against Hamby came to light in pretrial deposition testimony by Banks Bitterman, who resigned as principal of Buford High School in June 2017. The taped conversation was evidence in a discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the school system by a paraprofessional.

“He’d lose his temper in a heartbeat and yell, ‘I’m going to kill that [expletive],’ ” Bitterman said in pretrial testimony. “I’m going to kill this. I’m going to kill, kill, kill. I’m going to [expletive] that person, [expletive] this person.”

The AJC interviewed many parents and community stakeholders about what they wanted to see and hear from the new head of the school system and conducted an exclusive interview with Downs.

Although many residents who spoke to the AJC said they were disappointed the community had no input in selecting the new superintendent, they are optimistic that the school board made a good choice and hope the community can move forward.

‘Broaden our thinking’

James Taylor, president of Black Men United for Children and Humanity, a local advocacy group for education and government accountability, was vocal at those school board meetings calling for Hamby’s ouster as well as a change in Buford’s racial climate. He said he hopes Downs, 52, is the right person for the job, but does not expect a quick fix.

“In education, the board speaks through policy and the superintendent speaks through a strategic plan,” said Taylor, a retired administrator with Gwinnett County Public Schools. “The community isn’t expecting him to have all the answers right now, but they are expecting him to listen to their concerns, learn the best way to achieve common goals and lead by example.”

Shortly after Hamby was fired, Buford formed a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, comprised of parents, district employees and community members. The goal of the panel is to promote diversity and inclusion as well as identify, review and implement initiatives that best support students, staff and families.

“As we move forward, we’re looking for more diversity in administrators and staff,” said Ben Hayes, a member of the council. “I think it’s more important for the school to have diverse teachers because the students interact with them more closely.”

Haynes said he has talked to Downs and said he’ll trust the new leadership until he’s given a reason not to.

“It’s important for Buford to remain top-notch,” he said. “We can’t let one man ruin what’s good for our kids.”

Haynes moved to Gwinnett County in 2003 from Dade County in northwest Georgia.

“I’m no stranger to small-town politics,” he said. His town had a population of 15,000, just like Buford. “But as more people move into the area, we have to broaden our thinking.”

Nestled in the northwest corner of Gwinnett County, the school district is comprised of about 5,000 students.

According to U.S. Census data, the median age in the city is 36, and the median household income is $48,772. The population is 50% white, 32% Hispanic and 12% black.

‘Didn’t really feel like family’

Downs said one of the first steps to improving the relationship between the school system and the community is better communication.

“Shortly after I came on board, we hired a communications director and I believe that she’ll make a world of difference,” he said. “We did an end-of-year survey and 900 families responded online. They said they get mixed messages and sometimes no messages. We’re working to fix that.”

Kerri Leland was hired in May. She has children in Buford schools and a background in marketing and social media optimization. She’s already been hard at work preparing the debut of the new Buford High School.

“It’s a labor of love,” she said.

Parents have said they’d like a formal meet and greet, but Downs said he’d rather get to know the community more organically.

“I’ve met people at various events — baseball and basketball games and fine arts functions — some people have chatted with me and they didn’t hesitate to let me know their expectations,” said Downs. “We could have a large gathering, but that would be a lot of people surrounding me at once and wouldn’t be conducive to getting to know them personally.”

He and his wife closed on a house in Buford about two months ago and have already met their neighbors.

Domenech said getting out into the community is a great beginning for the new schools chief.

“A superintendent that stays locked in his office and never picks up the phone and never interacts with the public and the media gives a perception of not being engaged or transparent,” he said. “He can demonstrate right off the bat that he’s not the old superintendent. He’s a new leader with a new vision and new ideas whose open and involved.”

Downs has met most of the staff, including new head football coach, Bryant Appling.

“I was groomed by some really great guys and from what I can tell so has Dr. Downs,” Appling said. “He’s already sought input from staff on various things and he seems like someone who will unite the community.”

The school’s first black head football coach, Appling has three children in Buford schools and his wife, LaSauna Appling teaches second grade.

“We’re wholly invested in Buford,” said Appling who’s been on staff there for 15 years. “And we see a great future ahead.”

Current and former students, too, want to see a united Buford.

“Last year was my senior year and it was supposed to be the best year of my school career, but it was the worse,” said Cameron Hall, who is now at the University of Florida on a partial soccer scholarship. “The school was so divided between those who wanted to support Hamby and those who wanted to see him go that we didn’t really feel like family anymore.”

AJC reporter Bill Rankin contributed to this report.

Buford’s new schools superintendent

Robert Downs

Age: 52

Birthplace: Solon, Ohio

Married: Melissa

Children: Kaitlyn, 27 and Andrew, 25

Education: University of Georgia, 1985-1989, University of West Georgia, 1999-2000 and 2007-2008, Lincoln Memorial University, 2009-2011

Salary: $200,000 with a contract that ends June 2020

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