Calvin Watts is officially coming back to Gwinnett County Public Schools — starting Monday.
Watts — who spent more than a decade working in the district as both an assistant principal, principal and central office employee — was unanimously hired by the Gwinnett County Board of Education on Friday afternoon to become the district’s new superintendent. The 52-year-old is also a history-maker for GCPS because he is the first African-American to serve as superintendent of Georgia’s largest school district.
Watts left GCPS in 2015 to become the superintendent of the Kent School District in Kent, Wash., and he continued to hold that job until Friday’s vote.
“It feels wonderful (to be back in GCPS),” Watts said. “I’ve shared this before that I grew up personally in Washington state, but I grew up professionally when I relocated to the southeast and served 13 of my 29 years in education in Gwinnett County Public Schools.
“I could not be more honored, more privileged to begin my tenure effective Aug. 2 as the next superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.”
The school board approved a two-year contract, with a base salary of $380,972, to have Watts serve as the district’s leader, but that figure increases to $413,372 a year once transportation and expense allowances are factored in.
“I’m super excited to have Dr. Watts here,” board member Steve Knudsen said. “I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Board Chairman Everton Blair Jr. added, “I’m looking forward to the work that we’re able to continue in this school system.”
Watts’ employment contract is structured so that his base salary will change Jan. 1 of each year to match the percentage increase in the average teacher’s salary from the previous fiscal year to the current one.
The district will also reimburse Watts for moving to Georgia, but the maximum reimbursement is capped at $29,500. This will cover packing and unpacking costs, storage costs, moving and transportation costs, as well as temporary housing costs for up to three months.
The contract is set to expire July 31, 2023.
Watts will have a tall order ahead of him as the first new superintendent for Gwinnett County Public Schools in a quarter of a century.
He replaces outgoing Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who led GCPS for 25 years.
Friday was also Wilbanks’ last day on the job. At a farewell gala for Wilbanks on Thursday, the now former superintendent expressed confidence in his successor’s abilities to lead the district.
“He’ll do well,” Wilbanks said.
In addition to replacing Wilbanks, Watts will also be starting his new job two days before students head back to school for the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. GCPS will begin the school year with a staggered start for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, while it may sound like Watts is jumping straight into the fire with such a major event happening in the district during his first week, he said he’s ready to get to work.
“I choose to look at it this way: I’m an only child, I grew up in a high reliability household and my dad was in the military and my mom was in the health care field,” Watts said. “If something went wrong in the home or something didn’t go as we planned, and my parents didn’t do it, it was probably me that needed to fix something or do something.
“So, I’ve always been able to take a look at a situation and not look at it from a deficit model, but to say ‘What is it that we need to do differently?’ “
Watts acknowledged that leading GCPS — which has about 180,000 students — won’t be easy, but he said it will take everyone, including the district’s leaders, staff and the community as a whole to make sure Gwinnett’s students are successful.
“My goal is to lead in the way that I always have, first with the motto that ‘We must all reach and teach our children as if they had our last name,’ and secondly that we lead with the understanding that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are what we aspire for, should aspire for, all of our students, our staff members and our families,” Watts said. “And, when we do this well, we’ll be able to show that our students will succeed and they will thrive.”
But, while Watts has worked in GCPS before, he acknowledged that six years have passed since he left the district to become the superintendent of the Kent School District.
As a result of that time passage, he said his initial priority will be to get reacquainted with GCPS and the area, and to learn about the changes that have taken place in the county since he left and what the needs are now in 2021.
“The reality is I am rejoining Gwinnett County Public Schools in a new role, as superintendent,” Watts said. “My first, and major priority will be to look, to listen and to learn. This is the tour that I actually be undergoing for the first 90 days of my tenure to make sure that I understand the context of what’s working (and) what areas need to be improved.”
And, people were already lining up Friday night to make their voices heard on what they think Watts should do as superintendent. Within minutes of the board formalizing his hiring, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a statement calling on him to make student discipline reform a priority of his administration.
The SPLC has represented students in several exclusionary discipline cases where the district’s discipline decision was overturned by courts of the State Board of Education.
SPLC staff attorney Claire Sherburne said Black students, for example, make up 32% of the student population but 46% of all disciplinary actions taken by the district. By comparison, she said White students make up about 21% of the student population but account for just 13% of discipline cases.
“Through his role, Mr. Watts has a crucial opportunity and obligation to reverse the district’s dismal track record on school discipline,” Sherburne said in the SPLC’s statement. “And, we echo the community’s calls to make it a top priority from day one.
“We also are counting on Watts to hold the Gwinnett County school board accountable to its promise to overhaul the student code of conduct, including eliminating policies that discriminate against students of color, LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities. The students and families of Gwinnett County have waited long enough for change. They deserve access to evidence-based discipline policies and practices in which all students can thrive and succeed.”