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Gwinnett County Public Schools to face special accreditation review over complaints about district

Gwinnett County Public Schools is facing a review from its accrediting agency a year earlier than scheduled because of complaints that have been filed against the district.

Cognia spokeswoman Mariama Tyler confirmed the accrediting agency has received “several” complaints about the district, with at least one of them being about governance, which refers to the Board of Education. That has prompted a special review of the district which is expected to be conducted this month, where the district will have to answer questions from a team assembled by Cognia.

“If a special review is warranted, that means there is something that came up outside of the regular five-year cycle of review, and it usually is initiated by a complaint,” Tyler said.

Gwinnett County school board members have faced criticism in recent months over the decision to terminate Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ employment contract, effective the end of July, which is 11 months before the contract was set to expire. Wilbanks had already said he did not plan to seek a renewal of his contract.

District officials have also faced backlash in recent months over a face mask mandate, which led to a 40-minute standoff between the board and parents who refused to wear masks that led to a delay in the start of last month’s board meeting. Gov. Brian Kemp has since issued an executive order which prohibits schools from requiring students and employees wear face masks in school.

The issues have touched off sensitive racial and political tensions — two new board members took office and joined board Chairman Everton Blair to create a new majority on the board that is majority Democrat and majority minority.

There were petitions both in favor of Wilbanks’ removal and calling for him to remain in position earlier this year. Although GCPS parents started the petition supporting Wilbanks, it was eventually circulated by the United Tea Party of Georgia and the Conservative Republic Women of North Atlanta on social media.

Wilbanks addressed the special review in a statement released to the Daily Post on Tuesday afternoon.

“Gwinnett County Public Schools has been notified and is preparing for a special review by its accrediting agency, Cognia,” Wilbanks said. “While we were disappointed to learn that Cognia felt a Special Review was necessary, it did not come as a surprise. I had warned our School Board that this was a possibility.”

The superintendent said the district tried to answer questions from Cognia officials in an attempt to ward off the review, but additional complaints received by the accrediting agency prompted Cognia to proceed with the review.

“It is our understanding that the complaints primarily center on our board upholding its duties as a governing body and selected members adhering to their roles and responsibilities as members of the board,” Wilbanks said. “The special review, which will be conducted in June, will include interviews with a wide range of community members, including our Board members, the superintendent, teachers, administrators, students, parents, and other community members.”

Accrediting reviews that are prompted by complaints about a district and are done outside the regular review time window can result in various outcomes. One is that the review team could determine the allegations in the complaints don’t merit punishment, while another option is to put a district on probation.

A third option, which is rarely used and often only against districts that have gotten into trouble with their accrediting agency more than once, is to revoke the district’s accreditation.

Clayton County Public Schools, for example, was placed on probation for two years in 2003 after a new majority on that county’s school board ousted the district’s superintendent within the first month of that year. The district eventually came off probation and eight of the school board’s nine members were replaced through resignations of elections.

The new school board in Clayton County got into its own troubles with its accrediting agency in 2007 and early 2008, however, for nine issues, including: board members sharing confidential executive sessions discussions with members of the public; financial oversight involving a land purchase; disfunction on the board; the lack of a permanent superintendent; board members allegedly not living in the county; and schools allegedly falsifying attendance records used to determine state funding among other issues.

Clayton schools was placed on a six-month probation in early 2008 to give the district time to fix its issues. The accreditation was later revoked in September 2008 when the district showed it had still not met all of the mandates placed upon it — including not having a permanent superintendent.

After the review team finishes its look at the district, it will prepare a report which will include recommendations for improvement and possible recommended sanctions, if the team feels any sanctions are warranted.

Gwinnett County Public Schools officials could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

"Amazing parade' — Large crowd enjoys return of Dacula Memorial Day parade

The largest Memorial Day parade in the state was held Monday after a one-year absence due to COVID-19.

An estimated crowed of 10,000 people turned out for the event, which began with a flyover of UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters.

The grand marshall for the parade was United States Marine Corps, Gunnery Sergeant Larry Loper, who saw action in Vietnam from 1967-69 and has been a Dacula resident for 30 years.

“(The parade made me) very proud, very proud and very humble, very patriotic,” Loper said.

Loper filled in for twin 102-year-old veterans who had to drop out for health reasons.

Dacula United Methodist Church won “Most Original Theme” and Grayback Base U.S. Navy Submarine Veterans were awarded “Most Patriotic.”

Due to the new Harbins Road bridge construction at Georgia Highway 8, the parade route was changed this year. It began at Hebron Baptist Church and proceeded south on Dacula Road toward Highway 8, turned right on Wilson Street, ad right on Second Avenue, crossed Broad Street to Hebron Church Road, and proceeded back to the church.

Parade organizer Marvin Atherton, who has lived in Dacula since 1981, reflected on starting the event 28 years ago.

“I am not a veteran myself,” Atherton said. “My service to my country for the 28 years is to honor our fallen heroes.

“I went to a July 4th parade in the city of Stone Mountain back in 1993 and walked away from that one to do a parade here. I thought that was kind of a cool thing, so I got some information, and the next year in ‘94, we had the Memorial Day parade in Dacula.”

Atherton said the first parade feature about 20 floats. On Monday there were 88, he said, and there has has been as many as 150 in previous years.

Trey King, Dacula’s mayor, has lived in Dacula for 30 years, and said the city takes great pride in hosting the parade.

“I think the parade was fantastic,” King said. “It was great to see so many people out here to support the families and the sacrifices of the veterans we have in our community.

“I have a friend that served in the army and another friend that served as a Marine, and they were riding with me in the parade.

“(Next year) we’ll have even more time to plan. This was pretty much a very short plan (as) COVID took a turn for the worse. This was pretty much Mr. Atherton ... (I) give him all the credit he is due. He pulled together an amazing parade in a very short order.”

Gwinnett commissioners OK tax billing contract with Grayson that omits salary supplement for tax commissioner, but three other cities negotiating contract with supplements
But three other cities negotiating contract with supplements

Three Gwinnett County cities appear poised to pay Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter a supplement to her salary to get her to do their tax billing.

Gwinnett County commissioners are set to vote on contracts between the county and the cities of Peachtree Corners, Berkeley Lake and Dacula — all three of which are expected to agree to pay all or part of a fee to supplement Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter’s salary — at the board’s June 15 meeting.

A contract between the county and the city of Grayson — which will pay a $1.80 per parcel fee to reimburse the county for the service, but will not include the additional fee supplement Porter’s salary — was approved by commissioners on Tuesday, however. Grayson leaders are expected to approve it later this week.

“This contract (with Grayson) does not provide any additional compensation to be paid to the tax commissioner for these services,” county attorney Mike Ludwiczak told commissioners. “This contract has four-year term with either party having the right to terminate the agreement upon giving proper notice.”

Even though Grayson is not going to pay a fee to supplement Porter’s salary in order to have her office do tax billing, the tax commissioner is still projected to make $34,294 — in addition to her annual compensation of $141,098 — from the contracts with Peachtree Corners, Berkeley Lake and Dacula, according to an internal memo from last week.

The county memo showed county officials expected the contract with Peachtree Corners would generate a $27,532 supplement to Porter’s salary while the proposed contract with Dacula would generate a $5,454 supplement and Berkeley Lake’s contract would generate a $1,308 supplement for the tax commissioner.

The tax commissioner’s office had done tax billing for eight Gwinnett cities, but several of them began looking elsewhere after Porter proposed the $2 per parcel supplement. That left four cities looking to continue using the county’s services for tax billing.

State law was changed through an amendment to Senate Bill 201 in the 2021 legislative session to move the approval of such contracts away from the tax commissioner’s office by giving that power to the Board of Commissioners. That move — which was backed by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, state Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson — was an attempt to stop tax commissioners in Gwinnett and Fulton counties from charging fees to cities as a way of supplementing their annual salaries.

That prompted questions from commissioners about the anticipated contracts with Peachtree Corners, Dacula and Berkeley Lake on Tuesday.

Commissioner Kirkland Carden, whose mother lost to Porter in the Democratic primary for the tax commissioner’s office last year, questioned why Porter was allowed to give feedback on the contracts if Senate Bill 201 made it a contract between the board of commissioners and the cities.

“The law says this: There will be an agreement between these two parties, but yet one of the two parties is being allowed to work in negotiations with somebody outside that two-party agreement,” Carden said.

The county’s internal memo shows county officials expect Peachtree Corners and Dacula will pay a $1.80 per parcel fee to reimburse the county for the service as well as a $2 per parcel fee that serve as a supplement to Porter’s salary. The memo also shows county officials expect Berkeley Lake will pay the $1.80 reibumbursement fee as well as a $1 per parcel fee that will end up being a supplement to Porter’s salary.

Peachtree Corners officials told the Daily Post last week that they were still negotiating their contract with the county and that nothing had been set in stone yet. Indeed, the contracts for the three cities which are expected by county officials to pay Porter all or part of the supplemental fee are still being negotiated, Ludwiczak told commissioners.

Gwinnett's new noise ordinance — with new restrictions on fireworks — goes into effect on Tuesday

Gwinnett County residents will need to be a little more careful about how much noise they make when they set off fireworks.

The county has a new noise ordinance going into effect Tuesday that changes how officials will determine whether a noise can be considered a violation of the ordinance. The ordinance was adopted May 18.

“To balance the needs of both residents and businesses in our county, staff has completely rewritten the Noise Control Ordinance,” Deputy County Attorney Theresa Cox told commissioners on May 18. “Like the (previous) ordinance, the (new) ordinance uses the plainly audible standard for determining wether a sound is a violation.”

The new ordinance replaces the noise ordinance that county officials put in place in 2015, when consumer fireworks were first made legal in Georgia. After that ordinance was put in place, lawmakers went back and placed some restrictions on when fireworks could be used since the original law legalizing them lacked any restrictions on when they could be used.

Under Gwinnett’s new noise ordinance, officials will use location, time of day and the distance from which the noise can be plainly audible to determine whether residents are in violation. The only exemptions for fireworks are those days that are exempt under state law.

That means the ordinance does not apply to fireworks that are set off between 10 a.m and 11:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, on the last Saturday and Sunday in May (i.e. the Saturday and Sunday immediately preceding Memorial Day), July 3 and July 4 and Labor Day. There is also an exemption from midnight until 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day.

As far as the “plainly audible” standard that officials said they will use, the new ordinance states, “Plainly audible shall mean any sound produced by a source, which can be heard by any person of ordinary sensibilities using his or her unaided hearing facilities. Measurement standards shall be the auditory senses. Words and phrases need not to discernible and low frequency sound reverberations are included.”

The distance a sound is allowed to travel before it becomes a violation depends on the time of day.

In nonresidential zoning districts, it is 500 feet from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and from 7 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 200 feet from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 11:59 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Meanwhile, in mixed-use zoning districts, it is 300 feet from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 150 feet from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 11:59 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

In multi-family residential zoning districts, it is 25 feet from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 10 feet from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Elsewhere, in single-family residential zoning districts, it is 300 feet from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 50 feet from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

On privately owned outdoor property, it is 300 feet from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 100 feet from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and 11:59 p.m. until 7 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

If that privately-owned out property’s primary use is as a performance venue, however, the same distance rules for non-residential districts will apply.

Sounds made at publicly-owned stadiums, arenas, civic center or ballpark, Gwinnett County Public Schools properties or events, or places of worship, as well as government employees who are making sounds that are produced in their line of work are exempt under the ordinance. Sounds made by aircraft at Briscoe Field, radios or music players in cars on streets or highways, domestic animals and warning sirens are also exempt.

County officials will also establish a process where people who expect to hold events that will exceed the allowed sound limit to apply for a noise permit to hold the event. The permits will be issued by the county’s planning and development department.

County Commissioner Marlene Fosque pointed out the ordinance, and the new permit process, could apply to other events beyond those which involve fireworks, however.

“With a lot of graduation parties getting ready to start, or happen, if someone knew that they were going to have a large party — and they are social distancing — but if they are going to have a large party, they can get a permit for noise for a certain time frame or like in the evenings or something like that,” Fosque said during a discussion before the commission’s vote on the ordinance in mid-May.