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Leaders voice support for Wilbanks

SUWANEE - Nearly 10 community members, including civic and church leaders and a state legislator, publicly declared their support Thursday evening for Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.

Wilbanks, who leads the largest and one of the most diverse school systems in the state, recently came under fire after allegations he made an insensitive comment in an August school board meeting.

During a discussion on student discipline, an administrator cited a newspaper report that said in every state except Idaho minority students were disciplined at a rate disproportionate to their population. Wilbanks asked, "Do they have any blacks in Idaho?"

Jorge "J.P." Portalatin, the president of the Gwinnett County branch of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People, called the comment "biased" and asked Wilbanks to apologize. When the superintendent wouldn't, Portalatin chastised the county's top educator.

"It is clear that regardless of his record, Superintendent Wilbanks does not possess the cultural competency required for the changing demographics in Gwinnett County nor our future," Portalatin said in a news release. "Mr. Wilbanks should never have made such offensive remarks. But even more troubling is Mr. Wilbanks' arrogant condescending attitude and lack of remorse.

"It is because of his mindset that I have lost faith in his ability to lead GCPS to the benefit of all children."

Those who spoke at Thursday's school board meeting said it's unfair to characterize Wilbanks based on an off-the-cuff comment. Instead, they said, he should be evaluated on his record of service.

Eron Moore Jr., a member of the United Ebony Society, said it "really is a travesty ... to try to take a man to task for something so trivial."

"The man - I have known him since he started with Gwinnett Tech, and we know that Gwinnett Tech is the No. 1 technical college in the (United States)," Moore said. "And it didn't get that way by accident. It got that way under this man's leadership."

Years ago, there were many barriers minorities faced in Gwinnett County and Georgia, Moore said.

"This man is responsible for breaking down a lot of those barriers in education," Moore said.

Bishop Ron Sailor, the leader of Christ the King Baptist Church in Dacula, said he knows Wilbanks to be an honest and ethical man.

"I know the man and believe him to be a man of great ideal, trustworthiness and equality," Sailor said. "I choose not to be a word police"

State Rep. Melvin Everson, R-Snellville, said the school board knows he is "a man who will tell you how he feels and let the chips fall where they lay."

"I'm shocked and mystified that I'm standing here speaking on behalf of my district," he said.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is a model for other school districts in Georgia, Everson said. Although there is a disparity in the number of minority students who are disciplined, the number of black and Hispanic students sent before disciplinary panels decreased 10.2 percent from the year before.

"Do we have challenges? Yes, we do," Everson said. "Are we working to resolve those challenges? Yes, we are."

Lawrenceville business owner Lanier Levett said his children attend school in Gwinnett County.

"I've had nothing but a great experience with the Gwinnett County school system," he said. "I'm a big supporter of Mr. Wilbanks as well."

Herman Pennamon, who has lived in Gwinnett County since 1987, said he's known Wilbanks for 15 years. When he started the Gwinnett Unity Group, he said Wilbanks offered his support and guidance and asked others in the school district to help in the effort as well.

"Without a doubt in my mind, he's more concerned about the kids than some of our parents," Pennamon said. "I give him my full support."

Wilbanks said he appreciated the comments, adding that he knows with such accolades comes the responsibility of earning that respect.

"I'm not just interested in educating some children," he said. "I'm interested in every child being well educated, as well as building skills they need to be successful."