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U.S. DOE investigating Gwinnett schools for possible discrimination

For the second time in three years, the U.S. Department of Education is looking into claims that Gwinnett County Public Schools is discriminating against minority students.

The investigation is being handled by the Office of Civil Rights and is related to performance targets under the district’s Investing in Educational Excellence contract, or IE². Last month, the Gwinnett Couny Board of Education approved an extension of the contract that was last signed in 2008.

The OCR investigation centers on possible discrimination against students on the basis of race (black), national origin (Hispanic and English language learners), and disability by subjecting them to different treatment through the establishment of different performance targets, U.S. DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw said.

The OCR complaint was first filed in 2011, but about three weeks ago, GCPS received another request for more data related to the complaint.

“There are no additional complaints or updates other than the request for additional data,” said district spokeswoman Sloan Roach, who added that OCR’s opening of a complaint for investigation in no way implies that the complaint has merit.

A timetable for the investigation is unclear. Roach said GCPS was not given an update after it sent information in 2011.

An amendment to the IE² contract with the state Board of Education was needed, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said, because the district has built more than 30 schools and had re-districting since 2008. The IE² agreement allows local school systems flexibility by entering into a contract with the state BOE, in return for heightened standards.

The only other school districts in the state that entered into the agreement are Forsyth County Schools and Rabun County Schools.

Other unforeseen changes since the last contract agreement have been changes to curriculum, graduation or end-of-course tests, standardized tests and a new accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

In 2008, at a public meeting, officials met with some turbulence about the proposed contract. Hundreds of teachers, parents and community members showed up, including critics who complained the district hadn’t sought meaningful public input on the plan. Others complained about a lack of transparency on the BOE’s part as the proposal was being created.

But last month, a school principal and a parent were the only speakers at a public hearing, and both spoke in support of the extension of the contract.

Steve Flynt, the district’s chief strategy and performance officer added, “We have had a strong historical commitment of strengthing achievement and closing the achievement gap.”

Inside the contract are areas of flexibility, such as class-size and reporting requirements, expenditure controls, Quality Basic Education financing, categorical allotment requirements, salary schedule requirements, attendance and conditions of employment as it relates to duty-free lunch.

According to the Georgia DOE, if, at the end of the contract, any school has not met its performance goals for at least three years of the contract and is not meeting targets at the end of the contract, the local Board of Education will lose governance of those schools, but may decide to convert those schools to charter schools, transfer governance to a non-profit or for-profit education organization, or allow a nearby, successful school district to assume governance responsibilities.

The state Board of Education is expected to act on the matter at its June meeting.