GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Gwinnett County’s 183,000 public school students, and their teachers, will be keeping their school superintendent for another two years.
The school board voted Tuesday to renew the contract of Dr. Calvin Watts, who was hired two years ago and quickly became a lightning rod of controversy over violence in the schools and other hot-button issues.
The board’s vote was four to one in favor of keeping Watts instead of firing him.
Only the Chair, Dr. Tarece Johnson, voted to fire Watts.
“I fought for Dr. Watts in the beginning,” Johnson said, recalling when the board first hired Watts; but since then, she said, he has failed to achieve equity for those she describes as “historically marginalized students.”
“While he has made some progress,” she said, “they still continue to want and need for access and opportunity. I can’t, in good conscience, say that ‘consistency’ is more important than meeting the needs of each and every child.”
Watts, hired in 2021, soon came up with a plan to address one of the school district’s most pressing problems– violence in the schools. Watts supported a program to reduce violence that included keeping certain offenders in class, to try to rehabilitate them.
Many students and parents and teachers were frightened to be in class with them.
At one packed, public meeting this past November about the shootings and fights, parent Clayton Bolds told 11Alive, “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, you know, you send your kids to school, and you got to think about they may not come home.”
Watts changed course this past December, to try to come up with a different policy that could gain more support among board members, educators, students and their parents.
On Tuesday, board members who voted to renew his contract said they want to give him more time to achieve his goals, leading Georgia's most populous school district.
Dr. Adrienne Simmons said that change, now, would not be good for the students and educators. She noted how Watts “implemented a mid-course correction,” as the board requested, regarding his school safety program. “Give Dr. Watts more time to implement his strategic plan,” she said.
Dr. Mary Kay Murphy said a change in leadership “won’t bring a change for the better... I’ve strongly disagreed with Dr. Watts’ choices,” such as moving too quickly on some programs, including the disciplinary program, without getting the board’s input, first. But, she said, by holding him accountable going forward, she is hopeful he will improve.
Board Member Karen Watkins said students have been telling her to keep him.
“In the name of our students... who have said that they want– they like– the superintendent, this is what they want, I chose to renew the superintendent’s contract,” Watkins said.
Parent Amy Cook, who watched the school board’s vote, is not happy.
“We’re very disappointed,” she said. “When you realized you’ve made a mistake, when you’ve hired the wrong person, admit it and look out for the best of our county,” and the students.
Watts said he’s pleased with the contract renewal. He pointed to areas of “significant progress” under his leadership, such as rising graduation rates.
“I love my job,” he said, saying it is “hard work and heart work” that receives his total dedication, every day.
He said he looks forward to working with the board for two more years.
“I take personal responsibility” for the areas where the board is expecting him to improve.
“Our goal is to make sure that we’re leading together, alongside, for the purpose of achieving success for each and every one of our 183,000 students,” he said.
All five board members promised to keep a close eye on Watts and hold him accountable, they said, to make sure the schools are improving in every category.