New Gwinnett school board majority plans to bring change

Two years after the first person of color won a seat on the Gwinnett School Board, non-white members will make up a majority on the board for the largest and most diverse school system in Georgia starting Jan. 1.

New faces will replace the chair — Georgia’s longest-serving school board member with 48 years in her seat — and the vice chair, who has served 15 years.

“That’s a lot of legacy and change and superlatives all at once,” said Everton Blair, 28, who is currently the only Black member of the Gwinnett County Public Schools board of education. That will change next month, when Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins take office.

If the new members have their way, more than just the look of the board will change.

Johnson and Watkins campaigned together with closely aligned priorities, and Blair agrees with many of them, setting up a new majority on the five-member board. Those priorities include more support for students in lower-income areas, and improved procedures to tackle the disproportionate discipline against students of color.

It’s not clear what the changes on the board mean for J. Alvin Wilbanks, the school district’s superintendent for the past 24 years. Wilbanks’ contract expires in 2022. Many who supported this year’s opposition slate have called for his replacement, saying a new leader would be more in tune with the shifting demographics in Gwinnett schools.

“Our constituents will have a voice,” said Watkins, 45, who is Black and Filipina. “That’s immediate. If they are looking for new leadership, we’re going to champion that for them.”

Wilbanks said he and the newly-elected board members share the goal of providing the best possible education for children.

“I’m not going to retire until I get old enough,” said Wilbanks, 78. “When you can’t do what it is that you’re supposed to do, when you can’t put in 65, 75 hours a week, when you can’t get along with people, when you can’t have the respect of people, no matter what your age is, it’s time to leave.”

Johnson, 44, who is Black and Jewish, defeated Louise Radloff, the outgoing board chair, in the Democratic primary and won last month against a Republican write-in candidate. Watkins, a Democrat, defeated Carole Boyce, the current vice chair. Her win tips the board to a Democratic majority.

Johnson and Watkins also have children going through Gwinnett schools, unlike any other board members this school year.

Watkins said she wanted to address large class sizes in some schools as an equity issue. She also said the school district, one of the few in metro Atlanta to open its buildings in the fall, seemed to be taking a lot of risks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson’s wish list included pre-kindergarten in all Gwinnett elementary schools, along with academic before- and after-care programs in more schools. She is pushing to hire more teachers who are bilingual or certified to teach English as a second language, increase diversity in the curriculum and require anti-racism training for everyone in the school district, including students and board members.

She wants more counselors and social workers in the schools to address children’s traumas, and favors the “restorative justice” model of discipline that relies on mediation. She said school resource officers should not be involved in discipline unless the matter is criminal.

Their slate included Tanisha Banks, a special education teacher in Gwinnett who planned on finding another job had she defeated Mary Kay Murphy, who won narrowly.

Murphy took office in 1997 and will now be the most experienced member on the board. Come next month, every other member will have served for less than two years.

“I want to be mindful to respect what the voters have said to us and who they have sent to us, and I want to listen to their ideas,” Murphy said. “Most especially, I think it’s going to be very important for us to assure the employees of the school system, the parents of our students and our community members that we have one thing in mind as a unified board, and that is what is best for the students in our community.”

Banks is still pushing for a new superintendent, saying Wilbanks has gained too much power and faulting him for publicly scolding a teacher who frequently criticizes the administration.

“The leadership needs to change,” Banks said. “The climate of Gwinnett County needs to change, and the community and the people need their voices heard, and that’s what I ran on and almost made it.”

Blair said he encouraged Banks, Johnson and Watkins to run and gave his perspective, although he did not recruit them. His priorities include setting thresholds based on coronavirus metrics that would trigger increased public health restrictions in the school district and creating a more formal process for teacher feedback.

“I’ve always been the spokesperson for the south side of the county and have felt alone in advocating for more for our students, so that’s where I feel like we’re going to have a real bolstering of that view,” Blair said. “I anticipated this result, or more change.

“We’ve come a long way in a short time and we’ll continue to push forward and go further.”

Steven Knudsen, who was elected two years ago, said he expects Blair to be the next board president and would like to serve as vice president. Knudsen, like most of the incumbent board members, said he hopes his new colleagues take time to learn what’s working in Gwinnett before making changes.

“It’s really easy to screw up something that’s been good for a long time,” Knudsen said. “It’s really difficult to keep it at a high level of excellence year after year after year.”

The school district held a socially distanced, live-streamed sendoff for Radloff and Boyce before the board’s December meeting, during which they both highlighted the strengths of a district generally thought of as high performing, and cautioned against divisiveness.

Radloff ended the meeting by saying, “If we as a community come together, we can resolve the issues that are out there, but unless you stand as one, we will not be successful on behalf of our children.”

“Happy holidays. God bless America. We’re adjourned, ladies and gentlemen,” she added, ending a streak of nearly half a century.