The Gwinnett County Board of Education narrowly voted along party lines on Thursday night to fire Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks by giving him notice of its plan to terminate his contract this summer.
The county’s school board members began the process of replacing Wilbanks on Thursday by exercising a clause in his contract that allows it to terminate his employment with at least 90 days notice. Wilbanks’ contract was set to expire in June 2022, and he had already announced that he will not seek an extension on that contract.
Wilbanks’ last day will be July 31.
“In light of the addition of new members to the Board and my decision not to seek another contract, this vote is not surprising,” Wilbanks said in a statement. “While I was prepared to fulfill my contract through June of 2022, recent discussions with the school board made it clear that would not be the case.
“I appreciate the support I have received over the years, and, especially most recently, from staff members, parents, and community members. I want you all to know what a pleasure it has been to lead this district, to be a part of the GCPS family, and to be a contributing member of this great community. I know that when the time comes, I will proudly hand back to the Gwinnett County Board of Education and our community a school district that is in better shape today than it was when I became superintendent.”
The vote to fire Wilbanks was a 3-2 vote with the three Democrats on the board supporting Wilbanks’ firing while the two Republicans on the board voted against it. Board Chairman Everton Blair, Vice Chairwoman Karen Watkins and board member Tarece Johnson voted to fire Wilbanks, while board members Steve Knudsen and Mary Kay Murphy voted against it.
The board voted to contract with the Georgia School Boards Association to conduct a search for a new superintendent.
Blair said the decision was made to keep Wilbanks for another four and a half months to allow for a transition in leadership. Although the board could have still done that while keeping Wilbanks in place longer, the board’s chairman said largest support among board members was to keep the superintendent only until just before the 2021-2022 school year begins.
“We explored every option and this was the option that reached the majority consensus of the board and was done in collaboration with the superintendent,” Blair said. “(It is) one that gives finality around the contract and allows us to attract a superintendent of the highest caliber for this school district.”
Board members offered varying opinions on the matter before the vote was taken to fire Wilbanks.
“I have been a board member for every year of Mr. Wilbanks’ leadership,” Murphy said as she offered her dissent. “During that time, I have known Mr. Wilbanks to be ... honest, honorable, humble, hard-working and a visionary leader respected by senators, governors, representatives, business leaders, educators, grateful families and community members.
“This is a detrimental change without a thorough and transparent search for Mr. Wilbanks’ replacement and a detailed transition plan. It is counter to the world class way the Gwinnett County Public Schools system has operated over the last 25 years under his leadership.”
Watkins said, “This decision to make this move was not taken lightly by any of us. As you can see here, we had discussions, closed session discussions, prior to this. I want to say we are committed to serving the needs of all of our students.”
By setting his last day to be 11 months before the contract was set to expire, the board avoids having to pay Wilbanks a full year’s salary, but just barely.
The contract said the district would owe the superintendent one year’s salary if his last day was more than one year before the contract was set to expire. If his last day is less than a year before the contract ends, the district only owes him the aggregate salary that is left on his contract.
Wilbanks was paid $621,036 in fiscal year 2020, but that includes his $380,972 base salary as well as additional stipends and bonuses. The contract stipulates that, if the average teacher’s salary increases, Wilbanks’ base salary would increase by the same percentage, so it is was not immediately clear if his base salary was the same during fiscal year 2021.
Supporters of Wilbanks criticized the board for the decision.
One parent, Holly Terei, called on other parents to contact the district’s accrediting agency, COGNIA, to complain about the school board’s actions.
“I don’t even trust this board with my child,” Terei told the board. “I urge everyone to email COGNIA. We need somebody watching this board moving forward. Hold them accountable. Give your stakeholders the transparency that they demand (and) they deserve. This is absurd. Shame on all of you.”
Another parent, Steve Gasper, later told the board, “You removed a successful superintendent. You give us no cause. You haven’t given us any updates on a search. you haven’t given us any candidate recommendations, no vetting process updates. Where’s the transparency? Just remember you work at the pleasure of us.”
But Wilbanks, himself, told the public that he was not sad about the board’s decision.
“This is the 18th day of my 56th year in this business,” Wilbanks said. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great career. I’ve worked with some of the finest people that exist, most of them here in this district ... but there is a time for all things and sometimes it comes (to an end) maybe in a different way than you would like it to be, but I’m going to be OK.”
After he finished addressing the board and the people in the audience, everyone in the room — including all of the board members — gave Wilbanks a standing ovation.