Gwinnett County Public Schools’ accrediting agency has received several complaints about the county’s Board of Education, and at least one topic the agency is concerned about is an issue critics of the district have been raising for years, according to a copy of a letter sent to GCPS Superintendent J. Wilbanks.
The letter that Cognia sent to Wilbanks on March 1 — more than half a month before the board voted 3-2 to terminate the superintendent’s contract, effective July 31 — did not specify the number of complaints the accrediting agency has received, but it did say there had been “numerous” complaints by that point. Those complaints ultimately resulted in Cognia deciding to conduct a “special review” of the district which will include a visit by a review team June 13-16.
“The complaints primarily center on the Gwinnett County Public Schools Board upholding its duties as a governing body and selected members adhering to their roles and responsibilities as members of the Board,” Cognia Chief Global Accreditation Officer Annette Bohling wrote in the letter.
The issues about the school board that Cognia said it has been receiving complaints about range from board members' social media use to members not understanding their roles and responsibilities.
One issue raised against the board, however, is an issue that critics of the district have been raising for years, indicating the issues may go back years, to when the board, which is now majority-Democrat, was still majority-Republican. That issue is whether students of color are being disproportionately disciplined more than white students in Gwinnett County Public Schools and whether the board has done enough to address it.
The list of issues Cognia presented as examples of what the agency has been hearing in complaints against the board include allegations that members:
♦ “Exhibit a lack of understanding regarding their roles and responsibilities as members of the board.”
♦ “Do not demonstrate collegiality with respect to their differences or work cohesively to promote student achievement and the success of the district.”
♦ “Do not adhere to a Code of Ethic.”
♦ “Have allowed discrimination to take place against students of color regarding ... discipline infractions.”
♦ “Make decisions that seem unethical and discriminatory regarding the use of social media.”
♦ “Have not been responsive to a downward trajectory in student achievement within the district.”
Wilbanks responded on March 24 by saying that the board, which gained two new members after the 2020 elections, has been undergoing regular training since December. The most recent training session, which focused on board norms, was held this past Thursday.
“Whenever a change in Board membership occurs, growth opportunities are scheduled as the new governance team learns to work together on how best to fulfill their roles and responsibilities—individually and collectively—as members of the Board of Education,” Wilbanks told the agency.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools leaders and the Gwinnett County Board of Education will continue to engage in training opportunities and professional learning to facilitate a governance structure that is appropriate and ultimately allows for increased student achievement.”
As for the allegations that board members have not done enough to address inequities in student discipline — an issue that the district has faced criticism over for years — Wilbanks told Cognia that GCPS had been taking steps to address the issue, including a Discipline Code Review Committee that was launched in November 2019.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools is committed to addressing disproportionate discipline data through progressive disciplinary best practices, reviewing our disciplinary code, gathering feedback from our internal/external stakeholders, reviewing and implementing proven research disciplinary methods, and by employing a wide range of behavioral interventions while balancing our responsibility to address inappropriate student behavior,” Wilbanks said.
“This commitment already has resulted in a move toward restorative practices, implicit bias training, and the implementation of social emotional learning supports.”
And, as for a “downward trajectory” in student achievement, Wilbanks said he disagreed with the assertion that there had even been a decline. He pointed to systems the district has in place to monitor achievement trends so corrective action can take place if issues arise.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools has a robust Office of Research and Evaluation that uses various models to view student achievement data, allowing the district to not only know which schools are not performing well, but to determine trends by subject, subgroups, and comparison data to other schools with similar demographics throughout the state, nation, and world,” Wilbanks wrote.
“District and school leaders look at the performance of schools using data on state assessments, national assessments, and international assessments to provide a complete picture of student achievement in GCPS. In addition to the district’s Balanced Assessment System, other tools like a Cohort Analyzer and the district’s Results-Based Evaluation System supply key data. Our achievement data does not support Concern (No.) 6.”
Cognia told Wilbanks on April 19 that Gwinnett County Public Schools will be responsible for covering any costs associated with the special review. That includes paying Cognia a $9,000 “Special Review fee.”
GCPS is not the only metro Atlanta school district facing a special review by Cognia right now. The agency informed the Cobb County School District that it planned to do a special review of that district’s school board after three Democrats on the board filed a complaint with Cognia over political disagreements with their Republican counterparts.