Former teachers claim Gwinnett had covert layoffs

A group of former teachers has filed a state ethics complaint against Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks alleging he misled the public about the school district’s budget crunch remedies.

The educators, including veterans with advanced degrees, claim they were downsized because they made too much money in a tight budget year.

They say Wilbanks and his administrators let them go covertly to avoid the “public outcry” heard in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb. Gwinnett officials dispute their claim.

Thirteen teachers filed the complaint with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, saying their displacement as nonrenewed teachers without tenure bans them from applying for jobs at some metro area districts despite good reviews. The group wants Gwinnett to admit to laying off about 150 teachers.

A copy of the complaint provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution accuses district officials of making false statements, failing to report unethical behavior and unprofessional conduct.

“A nonrenewal is like a scarlet letter,” said Brandy Walker, a teacher for 10 years who worked at Gwinnett schools less than three. “The majority of us were let go for budget reasons. If I lie, they revoke my certification; Alvin Wilbanks has certification and he needs to be held accountable.”

Sloan Roach, a Gwinnett County schools spokeswoman, said the claim is “without merit.”

“There has been no coverup and no conspiracy as these folks claim,” Roach said. “Any concerns that the school district's budget process resulted in reductions in force can be put immediately to rest by the fact that we have hired many more teachers than were recommended for nonrenewal.

"In addition, during our budget process, district leaders outlined the shortfall in state funding as well as how the school district would balance its budget. Layoffs and reductions in force were not used to balance the budget. Our nonrenewal process has always been and continues to be an annual process that addresses employee performance issues."

According to the Gwinnett school district, about 155 teachers were recommended for nonrenewal, 139 of whom were nontenured. Ten of those were later offered jobs in the district, bringing the total number of displaced teachers to 145. The district then hired 471 new teachers with varying years of experience.

This year's nonrenewals represent a 163 percent increase over the previous year. At the end of the 2008-09 school year, about 55 teachers were nonrenewed, the district said.

Teacher Cynthia Wentz finds it odd that she was let go after she had been offered a job as an English teacher on Feb. 26.

That offer was later rescinded. “I was devastated,” Wentz  said. “I walked in the room and they basically said, ‘We are not renewing you.' They wanted to know by the end of the day if I was going to resign or just accept it.”

A Georgia Association of Educators official who has talked with the displaced teachers said he is skeptical of  Gwinnett's tactics and the timing of the dismissals.

“The school system is denying there were layoffs; I don’t think that is true,” said Pete Toggerson, Uniserve director for the GAE. "It’s hard to believe that every one of these people were poor performers. From the evidence I’ve seen, the likelihood of that is not very good. What is the aggregate salary of those people and the people hired to replace them?”

Gwinnett officials would not  provide a comparison of salaries of nonrenewed and recently resigned teachers vs. those who were hired.

Former social studies department chair Suzanne Hammontree Maness, a 22-year veteran with masters and specialists degrees, said her salary was approaching $75,000 when she was nonrenewed. A review of her performance evaluations in the three years she worked at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology showed “satisfactory” ratings. A World Quest Team she led won a state competition in 2010.

“We were let go because we were nontenured. The county is not admitting it so we are being blackballed,” she said. “All we want is our reputations cleared so we can return to the profession we love.”

Maness began receiving unemployment compensation in June after a Georgia Department of Labor investigation into her downsizing claim determined that she was eligible for benefits.

A state document she shared with the AJC said:  "You were fired and no specific reason was given to you. Your employer had not warned you about your work not being acceptable. Because you were not aware of a problem, you had no opportunity to improve your work. For you to be disqualified, your employer must show that you failed to work as required. Your employer has not done so."

“You don’t qualify for benefits unless you have been laid off through no fault of your own,” said Sam Hall, a spokesman with the state Department of Labor. “Each case is decided on its own merit.”

Nontenured teachers within the first three years of their employment have few options to dispute their dismissals, however.

“A nontenured teacher can be released without a statement of cause,” said Gary Walker, director of the educator ethics division. “Reductions in force are not a violation of the law or the code of ethics.”

Still, Walker said that all complaints received are reviewed and then forwarded to the commission, which has the final say on claims that are investigated.