Board votes to renew Gwinnett County superintendent's contract amid criticism

An at-times contentious special-called school board meeting to decide the future of Gwinnett County Schools leadership Tuesday night ended with Supt. Dr. Calvin J. Watts keeping his job.

"I am so excited to continue this work…our work," Watts said Tuesday.

Board members voted 4-1 to extend Watts’ contract, which was set to expire in July, for another two years. One-by-one, they explained the reasoning behind their vote. Those who voted for Watts said they may have disagreed with some of his decisions, but wanted to give him more time to grow into the position.

"I do want to place emphasis in stability…one of the things our community has asked for…and as of right now we do need some stability," District 1 school board member Karen Mulzac-Watkins said.

"I do not believe that there is a better situation at this point in time," District 2 school board member Steve Knudsen added.

Board Chairwoman Dr. Tarece Johnson was the sole "no" vote. She said Watts has been unable to meet the needs of the district’s most vulnerable student populations.

"I fought for doctor Watts in the beginning…I believed he would be the best person for equity and for the historically marginalized students in our community and those historically marginalized students in our community are still waiting," she said.

Many parents who attended told FOX 5 they were disappointed at the decision after an increase in violence on school grounds during Watts’s tenure and a deadly shooting involving a Norcross High School student just a mile from that campus last year.

"As parents, we’re all very concerned about the discipline issues that are presenting in our schools…we want to make sure that teachers and principals have the proper authority to do what needs to be done to ensure that our children are safe on school grounds," South Gwinnett PTA Vice President Dr. Alexis Williams said. 

During the 2021-2022 school year, the district reported a nearly 35% increase in violence but tribunals, where the most serious violations are dealt with, decreased by 88%. Suspensions also decreased.

Watts did not address parents directly during the meeting but had this to say about those safety concerns.

"We’re always concerned about safety…safety physically, safety emotionally, certainly the safety of our students is our primary concern as well as the adults who are serving," he told reporters. "We are taking the necessary steps to make sure that our schools remain the safest places they can be for our youth and the adults who are serving them."

His new contract will run through June 30, 2025.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is the largest school district in Georgia.

Who is Dr. Calvin J. Watts? 

Dr. Watts has been the superintendent of Gwinnett County schools since the summer of 2021

He grew up outside of Seattle and relocated to the Southeast early in his career. He referred to Gwinnett County Schools as "the place I grew up professionally." 

Watts spent 13 years at GCPS, most recently serving as assistant superintendent of school improvement and operations. Prior to being named Gwinnett County superintendent, he spent six years at the Kent School District in Washington state, managing a system of 26,500 students, 3,600 employees, and a budget of about $450 million. 

Watts took over a district of more than 177,000 students and a $2.346 billion budget in FY2021. 

His tenure as superintendent got off to a rocky start as debate about the requirement of face masks in schools and critical race theory dominate the discussion. 

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Calvin J. Watts

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Calvin J. Watts  (Gwinnett County Public Schools)

Dr. Calvin J. Watts steps down from board 

In May 2022, Dr. Watts joined the nine-member Board of Directors for Cognia, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools.

Parents in the district raised a concern that his service on the board was a direct violation to the contract he signed as GCPS superintendent. 

Article I, Section 10 of Watt's contract says, "The superintendent shall not seek or accept employment, remuneration or an honorarium in any private business or other commercial enterprise during the term of this contract without first seeking approval of the board." 

At first, Watts defended his new position. In a statement, he maintained it would not be a conflict of interest with his current duties overseeing the district. 

He eventually stepped down "solely because of the distraction this particular professional opportunity has caused in our district." 

Gwinnett County superintendent under fire for school violence 

Parents and guardians of Gwinnett County Public Schools continued to express concern over the disciplinary actions when it came to violence on school campuses. The concerns bubbled over during a gathering of school leaders, staff, community members, parents and law enforcement for a so-called "Code-Red" meeting. 

Hundreds of Gwinnett County parents showed up at a meeting to find out what is being done to keep their children safe. 

A number of questions centered on the district's new discipline policy. Dr. Watts assured everyone disciplinary measures still exist, but their new policy also emphasizes what happens after the punishment phase is over. 

The Nov. 3, 2022 meeting was called after 17-year-old DeAndre Henderson was killed on Oct. 31, 2022. The teen was found shot to death a mile from Norcross High School. He had left campus during school hours. 

Dr. Watts told the crowd there was no "quick fix" to the violence, and they were working on many levels to address it. He asked parents and guardians to work with the district.