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Wilbanks rails against state mandates

SUWANEE - Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks sharply criticized recent state legislative mandates Tuesday night at the first of five area Gwinnett Board of Education meetings.

Repeatedly, the long-time administrator spoke of the importance of preserving local control over school systems. He stressed putting students before politics, and not "pushing simple solutions to complex problems."

Wilbanks spoke of how implementing the "65 percent solution," which requires school districts to spend that amount on classroom instruction, will not be effective in practice and only limit school systems' abilities to balance already tight budgets.

"Schools will not improve by constantly shackling them with one mandate after another," Wilbanks said.

He presented his comments before almost 500 school administrators, teachers and parents from school board District II, which includes Collins Hill, Mill Creek, North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge clusters. The area school board meeting was the first one held this year, and there will be four more this month at high school schools across the county.

One of Wilbanks' primary concerns was about class size reductions, which would require the school system to add more than twice as many classrooms as anticipated to accommodate Gwinnett's rapidly growing student population.

"If I sound concerned, that is because I am," Wilbanks said. "Never before has public education been the political football it is today."

As part of its building program, Wilbanks said the school system has already purchased the land for 24 future school sites. The next phase of building, which will take place from 2007 to 2012, will call for 35 of more new schools. He will publicly unveil "The Plan" this June.

As part of his presentation, Wilbanks discussed the proposed budget for the 2006 to 2007 academic year. He criticized the state for its revenue cuts, which will be $15.5 million this year, and add up to more than $103 million over the past five years.

"Local systems are still reeling from our four straight years of revenue cuts. These cuts will continue this year," Wilbanks said.

Board Member Daniel Seckinger, who represents District II, immediately voiced his support after Wilbanks finished his presentation.

"What I would like to tell you as your board member is that we agree with him," Seckinger said. "He was not stretching the truth. He was not exaggerating. There was no hyperbole in what he said tonight."

Wilbanks is expected to give identical presentations at the four remaining area school board meetings this month. Residents are invited to attend any of them. The next one will be held Tuesday at Central Gwinnett High School.

At the meetings, community members will also be invited to raise their questions and concerns before the superintendent and board members. They all begin at 7 p.m. in the host school's theater.