“For the most part, things are going well” in Gwinnett County Public Schools, Supt/CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks reported in his annual state of the schools address, “but we still have our challenges.”
Wilbanks’ address was delivered during the District III Area Meeting of the Gwinnett Board of Education hosted Tuesday (April 17) night by in the theater. A reception in the lobby preceded the meeting. Dr. Mary Kay Murphy, who represents District III on the school board, presided over the meeting. Duluth Principal Jason Lane welcomed everyone.
The Duluth HS Navy JROTC presented the colors, and students from Chattahoochee Elementary School led the Pledge of Allegiance. The Duluth HS Chorus performed “Seasons of Love,” which will be the opening number of the “Peach Jam” concert it will present April 27 in the theater.
The agenda also included a video outlining 10 GCPS Strategic Priorities for becoming a world-class school system in 10 years (2010-2020).
“Our test scores remain among the top in the state from elementary to high school,” Wilbanks said. “An increasing number of students are taking Advance Placement classes, and several of our schools were recognized as AP Honor Schools.”
Specifically, Wilbanks noted that eight GCPS middle schools ranked in the top 20 in Georgia on the Eighth Grade Writing Test, and GCPS SAT scores averaged 11 points above the national average and 66 points above the state average.
eClass digital learning that will be piloted in 33 GCPS schools next fall, he said, will “truly transform how we deliver instruction in our schools,” he said. The program will be piloted in the Archer, Berkmar, Duluth, North Gwinnett, and Shiloh clusters.
Annual enrollment growth has become “more manageable” in recent years, Wilbanks said. The Gwinnett school system has 160,400 students and is the largest in Georgia and among the largest in the nation. While enrollment continues to grow, he said, the figures aren’t as dramatic as annual increases of 5,000 to 6,000 students experienced in the late 1990s and earlier 2000 years. Over the next few years, enrollment is expected to grow by 1,200 to 1,300 students annually.
Voter passage last fall of SPLOST IV, he said, will provide funds for five new schools, renovations that will turn the Monarch School in Duluth into a middle school, additions to seven existing schools, and build-out of the third floor at Meadowcreek High School. The projects are scheduled from 2012-17.
Updated Academic Knowledge and Skills curriculum adopted by the Gwinnett BOE will guide instruction in the 2012-13 school year. This aligns the AKS in Gwinnett County schools with the state’s Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, Wilbanks said.
Also, GCPS is participating in developing a new State Personnel Evaluation System, he said.
“Our biggest challenge remains the budget,” Wilbanks said. The FY2013 budget was the most difficult he’s faced in his 17 years as GCPS superintendent, he said. To balance the budget, a shortfall of $89-million had to be overcome. Financial challenges are expected to continue through the next three to four years, Wilbanks said.
The shortfall, Wilbanks explained, was due to:
- A continued decline in local tax revenue – $36 million
- End of federal stimulus dollars – $31 million
- Increased cost of classified employees’ health insurance premiums – $11 million
- Mandatory increases in GCPS contributions to the Teachers Retirement System – $7 million
- The need to hire more teachers due to enrollment growth – $4 million
GCPS addressed the shortfall by:
- Reducing central office department budgets – $1.6 million
- Eliminating 54 central office positions – $2.7 million
- Earning additional state revenue – $21.6 million
- Ending payments to an external charter school – $2 million
- Reducing the GCPS contribution rate to the Gwinnett Retirement System – $19 million
Additional measures included:
- Increasing most class sizes by two students (Wilbanks said increasing class size by one student saves $32-$33 million.)
- Continuing two furlough days for all employees except for bus drivers and school nutrition staff
- Releasing employees hired after the beginning of the school year and retired employees working part-time (Once current full time employees are placed in positions for the 2012-13 year, released employees will have an opportunity to be rehired.)
- Leaving vacant district-level positions that are unfilled or become vacant during the year
Measures that were not used to balance the budget:
- No district-level elimination of instructional programs
- No increase in the school tax millage rate
- No additional furlough days (Most employees will have two furlough days in 2012-13 as they did in 2011-12.)
- No reduction in employee salaries
- No reduction in instructional days or time.
Over the past 11 years, Wilbanks also said, GPS has lost $631 million because of “temporary" state funding cuts including $113.3 million in 2013. “With that $113.3 million, we could have offset the $89-million deficit, hired 195 teachers, lowered class size, and eliminated furlough days.”
Wilbanks concluded his speech with an impassioned appeal for parents, teachers, taxpayers, business owners, and community leaders to vote against H.R. 1162, which was passed by the Georgia General Assembly in its 2012 session, and oppose the campaign promoting charter schools. The proposed constitutional amendment, which allows the state to create charter schools, will appear on the November General Election ballot.
The campaign to create charter schools, Wilbanks said, discredits public education. Charter schools, he said, decrease funding for public schools and remove control of educating students and accountability for tax funds from local elected school boards.
Only local school districts currently have the authority to approve or deny charter school requests.
The Georgia Charter School Commission had been approving and funding charter schools denied by local school districts until the Georgia Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
The meeting concluded with presentations by parents and representatives of cluster schools in District III. Wilbanks answered questions submitted by audience members on cards, and school board members delivered closing remarks.
Prior to the District III meeting, the school board convened in the theater and tentatively approved the superintendent's proposed $1.7-billion FY2013 budget. Public hearings are scheduled on the budget for 7 p.m. May 10 and 6 p.m. May 17 at the Instructional Support Center in Suwanee. The board is expected to adopt the final budget and a tentative tax millage rate May 17. The final millage rate is slated to be set in June.