Everton Blair takes his oath during his swearing-in ceremony at the Gwinnett County Board of Education office in Suwanee, Ga., on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. Blair is the first black member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, as well as the youngest. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

One year in, “rookies” reflect on Gwinnett County School board

It’s been about 16 years since Gwinnett County Public Schools had to break in new board members. As the largest school district in the state, it also has some of the longest-serving board members as well as a superintendent who’s been around since one of the newest board members was a student.

Gwinnett County has received cheers and jeers for its management style where the board and superintendent often appear in lockstep. Most recently, it launched a new performance-based awards plan that gave as much as $6,000 before taxes to a small number of teachers. The program met with mixed reviews — including criticism that teachers with the most challenging students were passed over.

After their first year on the job, board members Everton Blair and Steve Knudsen sat down with The AJC to reflect on the experience, how it measured up to expectations and what they see going forward.

Even though they took heat for the performance-based awards plan, neither man was in office when it was hatched. By the time they came on board it had been vetted and voted on.

“I have no problem with rewarding good work, but I think we need to make some changes,” said Blair. He made it clear at the most recent board meeting that he wanted the 2.0 version to take into consideration the challenges of teachers in Title I schools, which have a high proportion of students in poor households; those who have special-need students, and other factors.

Knudsen agreed.

“Of course we’d like to see more experienced teachers with the most demanding students,” he said. “We don’t want Title I schools to have revolving doors.”

But as a first step, the awards did show the teachers that their work is important — not to say that they work of others in the system isn’t important, too, Knudsen added.

Both men said that Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks having several decades on the job allows Gwinnett to get a lot done.

“If we were like a lot of other districts that have a new superintendent every three or four years, we wouldn’t get half as much done,” said Knudsen. “Some of the plans and processes take 10 or 15 years to take off. You don’t want to go back the drawing board in the middle. You’ll never get anywhere.”

Having to account for the education of 180,000 students can be daunting. That’s why the board members’ “part time” job requires a lot of hours. Although both Blair and Knudsen filled seats that were vacated by previous board members, three seats are up for election in November. And a few people have already mentioned running, even though qualifying isn’t until spring.

Because of the size and scope of the job, Knudsen said he’d like to run for another term in two more years.

“I’m an empty-nester,” he said. “I see this as a point in my life where I can give the time and energy.”

At 27, Blair said he doesn’t plan that far ahead.

“I’d like to at least fulfill this term, but I don’t live my life that far into the future,” he said. He’s fortunate that his job in Washington, D.C., allows a lot of telecommuting. But, he said, he likes to keep his options open.

“As long as it’s the right fit and I believe I’m the best person for the job, I don’t plan on leaving,” he said.

And for those who may have thoughts of joining the board, both said they’d be willing to give advice.

“If you have the passion, that’s half the job,” said Knudsen. “But you also have to bring some skills to the table.”

Working in the nonprofit sector, Knudsen said he knows what it’s like to be a responsible steward of funds.

“We joke a lot about the on-boarding process being so long,” he said. “But we both got up to speed pretty quickly.”

One of the biggest misconceptions, however, is that board members have a hand in day-to-day operations. It’s actually the opposite.

“I get dozens of calls every week from people within and outside my district looking to fix an issue,” said Blair. “It’s my job to point them to the right person within the district to help. And most times, they really need to start with the principal at their school.”

Knudsen nodded in agreement.

“Our job is to be the architects and Wilbanks is the contractor, so to speak,” he said. “I think Gwinnett has been successful for so long because we’re not afraid to ask questions and change things as needed.”

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