New light is being shed on why Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract was discussed by the county’s school board on Wednesday, and it appears to be the meeting was the first step in preparing to hire someone to replace him next year.
Wilbanks’ contract to lead the state’s largest school system runs through June 2022, meaning he still has more than a year left as the district’s top administrator. In a statement, Wilbanks said he plans to stay on through the end of his contract — but he is not looking to stay beyond that.
“I have shared that this is my last contract,” Wilbanks said. “I work at the pleasure of the board … should they decide they want me to stay until June 30, 2022, I am prepared to honor my contract.”
Wilbanks’ job security has been the subject of a lot of discussion in recent months with competing petitions, one calling for his firing and one supporting him, circulating in the community. That raised questions about why his contract was up for discussion in executive session at a called meeting this week, sparking fears among some of his supporters beforehand that the board was meeting to fire him.
In addition to his contract, a meeting agenda listed “Superintendent evaluation” and “Leadership Personnel” as items that were to be discussed during the executive session.
The board spent two and a half hours in executive decision, but did not reach any decisions on the items discussed.
“We did not take any action in executive session and will continue conversations over the next several weeks,” board Chairman Everton Blair said as the board came back into open session.
Board members did not say during the meeting why the items concerning Wilbanks were on the agenda. Blair, speaking through District spokeswoman Sloan Roach after the meeting, said he could not comment further on the matter beyond what he said when the board returned to open session.
Roach said Wilbanks told board members in December that he would likely not seek an extension of his contract, which is set to expire in June 2022. Two seats on the board have changed hands since then however, and Roach said Wednesday’s executive session where the contract was discussed was a chance to renew that discussion.
“Having that conversation now means the board will have the time it will need to make decisions and put a plan in place to find his replacement,” Roach said.
Superintendent searches, especially national ones, can take months to complete. Roach said Wilbanks has traditionally notified the board in the September before his contract is set to expire if he plans to seek an extension or not in case a search was necessary.
The school board will have to pick someone to do the search — that could be a local search committee, the Georgia School Boards Association or a private search firm — and come up with a job description, including qualifications and criteria it is looking for.
An advertisement for the position would have to be drafted and published, and then there is an application period followed by a vetting period designed to narrow down finalists that the school board can interview before contract negotiations with a final candidate takes place.
Finally, a new superintendent would be hired after a contract agreement is reached.
When Buford City Schools searched for a replacement for former Superintendent Geye Hamby a couple of years ago, it took nearly half a year to prepare for, begin and complete the process after Hamby resigned in August 2018.
When Clayton County Public Schools was looking for a new superintendent in late 2016 and early 2017, it took nearly seven months to complete that search.
It is possible that laying the groundwork for a search now could allow the school board to hire someone in time for Wilbanks and his successor to go through a transition period.
That’s what Columbia County Schools did when it hired Steve Flynt away from his job as GCPS’ head of school improvement and operations in January to be its new superintendent. Flynt is working with Columbia County’s current, retiring superintendent this spring on a transition, giving him a few months to prepare before he takes over this summer.
Wilbanks has been GCPS’ superintendent since 1996, and he will be in his 80s, or about to enter them, when his current contract is set to expire.
There have been rumors circulating in recent months that the board was about to fire Wilbanks, prompting the competing petitions circulating in the community.
If the school board were to fire Wilbanks before his contract expires, the termination clause of his contract stipulates the board would have to give him 90 days notice of its plans to do so. The board could fire him either with cause, or without it. The district would have to pay him if he is fired without cause.
The amount Wilbanks would have to be paid depends on when he is fired.
If he is fired with more than a year left on his contract, the district would have to pay him the equivalent of one-year’s worth of salary.
If he is fired with less than a year left on his contract, however, the district only has to pay him whatever is left on his contract.
The state’s transparency in government website, open.ga.gov, states Wilbanks was paid $621,036 in fiscal year 2020, which ended last summer. The superintendent’s contract states, however, that his base salary increases on Jan. 1 by the same percentage that the average teacher’s salary increased from the previous fiscal year to the current one.
But, the board could also fire him “for cause” and that section of his contract does not specify how much money, if any, he would be owed.
“If the decision is made for me to leave earlier that is (the board’s) decision to make,” Wilbanks said. “I enjoy coming to work every day and remain committed to serving the students, staff, families, and community of Gwinnett County.”