|Statement from CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks:|
Recent news reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have raised questions about the integrity of the land acquisition process in Gwinnett County Public Schools. Over the last two-and-a-half months, school district staff members have produced volumes of documents in response to 14 Open Records Act requests filed by their reporter; given full, accurate, written answers to over 130 questions, and answered questions again in three telephone interviews with the Superintendent. The reporter also spoke with two Board of Education members.
Despite the thousands of pages of information provided, the news reports have omitted key points about the transactions depicted, reported partial responses, and, consequently, may have left some misleading perceptions. These land transactions and many others were financed with proceeds from the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) and bond referendums approved by Gwinnett voters. The overwhelming public support for these referendums is not taken for granted. The supporters of these initiatives, as well as all citizens of Gwinnett County, deserve all the facts and assurances that the Board of Education and its employees have been good stewards of the public’s money.
Therefore, I am recommending to the Board of Education that an independent, third party conduct an investigation of all land transactions by the school district since 1999. I do not make this recommendation because of any qualms or concerns regarding these transactions, but rather to demonstrate that the land purchases were conducted legally, ethically, and professionally in every case. Since 1999, employees of the school district have conducted 95 land transactions, 76 of which resulted in sites being purchased for less than the appraised value. In eight transactions the property was purchased at the appraised value. In acquiring the remaining 11 sites we were forced to take the route of condemnation; the courts ordered us to pay on average 26% more than our appraised value for 10 of the sites, and one transaction was reduced to 3% below appraisal. This stewardship by our staff over the past 12 years allowed us to acquire school sites for $37.5 million less than the appraised value, resulting in tremendous savings for Gwinnett County taxpayers while enabling us to build new schools and additions that provided more than 3,000 classrooms to house our growing student population.
In acquiring the sites for new schools, I believe our staff went about the people’s business with the appropriate objectives in mind—our commitment to obtain the best site at the best possible price and to compensate the property owners fairly, as the law requires. However, it is important that not only are we confident internally of the propriety of our actions, but also that Gwinnett residents feel the same level of assurance and trust.
That is why I am recommending to the School Board that Joe D. Whitley, former U.S. Attorney for the Middle and Northern Districts of Georgia and currently an attorney in private practice, be engaged to conduct a comprehensive investigation of these transactions and make a report to the Board of Education that will be released to the public at its conclusion. Mr. Whitley has agreed to conduct this investigation beginning immediately. He anticipates having a final report completed within six to eight weeks.
At a special called meeting on April 12, 2011, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks recommended to the Gwinnett County Board of Education the hiring of a third party to conduct a comprehensive investigation into land transactions.
As a result, the School Board unanimously approved a motion authorizing the Board's attorney on behalf of the Board of Education to hire attorney Joe D. Whitley to conduct an independent investigation into the school district's land acquisitions since 1999.