The Gwinnett County Board of Education has named Calvin Watts as the sole finalist to replace outgoing Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, putting the district on the cusp of a history-making leadership appointment.
The vote to name Watts as the finalist came during the board’s monthly meeting Thursday night at the Instructional Support Center named for Wilbanks.
The board is required under state law to wait 14 days before taking a final vote to hire Watts, who is currently the superintendent of the Kent School District near Seattle, Washington, to lead the district. That puts a decision on whether to hire him just before Wilbanks’ last day, which is July 31. The school board is expected to hold a special meeting July 29 for a final vote on hiring Watts.
If hired, Watts would become the first African-American to lead Georgia’s largest school district.
“GCPS has a long history of success and J. Alvin Wilbanks leaves a great legacy,” said Watts, who joined Thursday’s meeting virtually. “Certainly with the support and assistance of our Board of Education, our students, our families, our teachers, our principals and assistant principals, support staff as well as our faith-based and community partners and volunteers, I look forward to leading Gwinnett County Public Schools towards its next chapter and trajectory of greatness for each and every school.”
Watts is a former assistant superintendent in Gwinnett County Public Schools, and rose through the administrative ranks in GCPS before leaving to become superintendent of the Kent School District in 2015.
Watts was also an assistant principal at Bethesda Elementary School, principal at Trickum Middle School and Annistown Elementary School and oversaw staffing in the district’s human resources department. As an assistant superintendent in GCPS, he worked with principals in school improvement and operations.
“I have always referred to Gwinnett County Public Schools as the place where I grew up professionally,” Watts said.
He also held administrative positions at Archdiocese of Atlanta-run schools and was a teacher in Carrollton City Schools, Atlanta Public Schools and Seattle (Wash.) Public Schools.
The board voted earlier this year to terminate Wilbanks’ contract 11 months early, effective the end of this month. Wilbanks has led Gwinnett County Public Schools for a quarter of a century, beginning in March 1996, and had previously said he was not planning to seek an extension beyond his contract’s original expiration date of June 30, 2022.
Wilbanks is the highest paid superintendent in Georgia, making more than $600,000 a year, including a base salary and several financial bonuses built into his contract.
It is unclear how much Watts will be paid on an annual basis. School board chairman Everton Blair Jr. said a contract still has to be negotiated with Watts.
The naming of Watts as the sole finalist for GCPS’ superintendent position comes three weeks after the Kent School Board voted 3-2 to extend his contract to be that district’s leader for an extra year, until June 2023. The Kent Reporter reported last month that Watts’ annual salary in the Seattle-area district was $279,500.
Watts faced a similar 3-2 vote last year on a one-year contract extension. Two of the three board members who voted to approve each contract extension are reportedly not seeking re-election when their terms end later this year, according to the Kent Reporter.
Watts’ time with the Kent School District hasn’t been totally issue-free.
He joined the district while it was experiencing financial issues and there was a $6.9 million budget shortfall in 2017. He was hit with a “No Confidence” vote from the local teacher’s association after his administration announced plans to cut dozens of teacher positions in an effort to improve the district’s fund balance, according to news reports from Washington.
“We did interrogate him about that,” Blair said. “It was very clear from the financial data longitudinally that improvement occurred because he was there. And, it’s a lagging indicator so you’re not going to get the bond rating until several years after you do the work to ensure that your system is financially healthy.
“We did probe deeply in that area and are confident that he will be able to hold to much easier situation here where he’s going to be given a good situation.”
But, efforts to improve the district’s finances appear to have had an impact. Moody’s Investor Services, which is one of the top credit rating agencies, issued a positive report on the financial outlook, citing an “improved financial standing” and a “strong financial management team,” in 2019, according to the Kent Reporter.
The newspaper also reported that Moody’s cited the district showed “a massive improvement in the district’s financial profile resulting in fund balance and liquidity levels.”
Earlier this year, Moody’s cited continued improvement as it upgraded the Kent School District’s credit rating from A1 to Aa3, saying that “although enrollment is declining with a significant drop in fiscal 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, management has demonstrated its ability to address challenging financial situations and deliver strong results.”
Another credit rating agency, S&P’s Financial Services, upgraded the Kent School District’s financial outlook from negative to stable in 2020, according to Watts’ application.
And, Kent schools reported in 2020 that its graduation rate had jumped 8.1% between 2015 and 2020.
Kent School Board President Denise Daniels praised the work Watts did in that district in a statement released Friday, citing improvements in diversity and equity — an area that has been a particular focus for the Gwinnett school board lately.
“Dr. Watts’ leadership and commitment to our district are evidenced by our four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate being at an all-time high, the advances of our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and being selected for this position also speaks volumes about his leadership,” Daniels said.
“We, in the Kent School District, have been so very fortunate to have a leader with a continual focus on student success, while consistently demonstrating dignity and integrity even when faced with multiple challenges and adversity.”
Watts said in his application that Kent schools reduced the number of Black male students who received in-school or out of school suspension from 15% to 7% between 2015 and 2020 by using equity-based strategies such as restorative justice, empathy interviews and action learning projects. His administration also established a Race and Equity Policy in 2017, expanded underrepresented voices in cabinet meetings and holds monthly meetings and listening sessions with groups representing educators of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
There was unanimous approval from Gwinnett’s school board to name Watts as their finalist to replace Wilbanks, with both Republicans and Democrats on board expressing excitement about the decision to name him as the finalist.
“He has the proven experience in Gwinnett County at every level that the community shared, in the survey that we sent out, that they would want to see in a superintendent as well as sitting superintendent experience,” Blair said. “And, in that experience, the financial health and well-being of the district increased, the student achievement increased and the provision of equity increased in the reduction of student achievement disparities in Kent.
“Those were things that given Kent’s comparable diversity to Gwinnett we were really excited about (him) as well as just his vision for how he was going to hold to what has been so successfully established here and move forward and really address where we can continuously improve.”
Board member Steve Knudsen said, “he’s been trained and he cut his teeth in GCPS and in leadership here under Mr. Wilbanks and I think that’s going to come in handy. He’s committed to communicate with our community and to listen to our community. I’m committed to working with him to do that.”
The school board worked with the Georgia School Boards Association to search for a new superintendent. GSBA officials previously said 27 people applied for the job.