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.