Gwinnett Schools Superintendent Wilbanks could face ethics investigation

A state board will decide Wednesday whether to launch an ethics investigation against Gwinnett Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, accused of misconduct in layoffs that eliminated 150 jobs.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission will consider complaints filed by former teachers who have charged Wilbanks with misleading the public about the layoffs in order to avoid a parental backlash. The teachers allege they were downsized because they made too much money in a tight budget year, and that this happened after district officials had told them they wouldn't face layoffs.

The teachers claim the district cut the jobs for reasons other than performance, even though many of the educators had stellar reviews and advanced degrees.

State educator ethics officials said they typically don’t get involved with employee disputes but this situation intrigued them because of the volume of complaints.

“There are so many of them,” said Gary Walker, executive director of the ethics division.

Thirteen teachers initially filed complaints against Wilbanks in September, which were rejected, with some of them resubmitted. Walker said 10 new complaints were received before the November meeting deadline, but others were still trickling in.

Suzanne Hammontree Maness, a former social studies department chair, wants Gwinnett Schools to admit to the reasons behind the layoffs so teachers can clear their records and get new jobs. The 22-year teaching veteran said she was cut just before reaching tenure and receiving a contract to continue in the classroom for a fourth year in Gwinnett.

“I have not been able to get my feet in the door in two districts -- DeKalb and Walton county schools -- because of my non-renewal,” Maness said. "I was making almost $75,000. I have nothing in my record that indicates I had a performance issue. This is about the economy. They needed to let higher-paid teachers go.”

Teachers have received uncontested unemployment compensation after Georgia Department of Labor investigations ruled they were fired without cause, Maness said.

“If you are going to expect kids to be honest, you have to be honest yourselves,” said Pete Toggerson, Uniserve director for the GAE. “An overwhelming number of them got unemployment benefits. The school system regularly challenges unemployment [compensation] where teachers have been dismissed for cause.”

Gwinnett Schools officials, however, said the non-renewals were performance-based rather than cost-cutting measures.

“The complaints are without merit,” said Sloan Roach, Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman.

According to the Gwinnett school district, 145 teachers did not receive renewal agreements. That represented a 163-percent increase over the previous year, when 55 teachers were not renewed.

Tonysha Johnson, a former English teacher, filed a five-page complaint in the first round and was discouraged by its rejection and ensuing recommendation to fit her affidavit on one page. She didn't refile, but said she will attend the Professional Standards Commission meeting to support those who did.

Johnson was  shocked when her principal told her that she wouldn't be renewed.

“I have never had a negative review," she said. " I have been asked to supervise student teachers and mentor veterans on classroom management. I was made team leader. They chose me to get gifted certification …  and paid hundreds of dollars for it.”

Johnson was offered the option to resign so it wouldn't stain her record and prevent her from getting another teaching job.

"People should know what Gwinnett County did,” she said. “If they just let people go the right way, there wouldn’t be these problems. ... Saying they would lie to the PSC for you if you [resign] is unethical.”