Superintendent’s Statement on AJC Articles Regarding Land Purchases and ISC – June 16, 2011









Superintendent’s Statement on AJC Articles Regarding Land Purchases and ISC – June 16, 2011

Beginning on Sunday, March 6th, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched a series of articles about Gwinnett County Public Schools. The series has focused on our processes for purchasing land on which to build new schools or acquiring existing facilities to convert into schools and needed space for instructional support services.

This past Sunday, June 12th, the newspaper ran the latest article… the fifth one in the series. In every case the reporter has written stories that can only be described as incomplete, misleading, and prejudicial. And he did so despite having received and reviewed volumes of information and documentation provided by the school district which, had he chosen to include it, would have resulted in very different news stories. The latest article was perhaps the most out-of-bounds. It compelled me to issue this statement tonight on behalf of the school district and its staff, who have been unfairly maligned in the pages of the AJC.

J. Alvin Wilbanks,
CEO/Superintendent
Gwinnett County Public Schools
I will begin by providing a quick review of the last five months during which school district staff have attempted to work with the reporter. We have made every effort to respond appropriately to the dozens of open records requests he filed and the endless questions he posed, either through e-mail, in person, or over the phone. The list of questions to which we have provided responses now tops 300. To read the five articles written by the reporter, however, one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the information we provided. One could argue, in fact, that he failed to take into account most of the explanatory information, historical background, legal documentation, statistical evidence, and financial analyses we provided to help bring objectivity and balance to his reporting.

Anticipating correctly back in March that we would not receive fair treatment at the hands of this reporter, we took the proactive stance of sending out communications to key audiences in the community and to district staff. We did so either in advance of, or immediately following, publication of the various articles. We also immediately posted these messages on the school district’s web site for all to see. We provided the questions the reporter submitted to us in writing, along with our full responses. We did so to allow readers to see the extent to which relevant information was not included in the article, was used out of context, or was simply ignored by the reporter. We can only wonder why pertinent information was not reflected in the articles. Is it because it did not support the predetermined conclusions and bias the reporter brought to this assignment? You decide.

To substantiate this charge, I refer again to the article that ran on June 12th. The focus of the article was the purchase in 2004 of the school district’s central office facility, the Instructional Support Center or ISC. In 2005, we executed a sale-leaseback of the ISC, a prudent financial transaction that offered a number of benefits for taxpayers and the district. The facts of the matter are quite different from what was presented in the paper. During this time period, sales tax collections were coming in much lower than projected and our need for classrooms was still growing. To complete the 2002 building program as planned, we had to acquire additional funding by issuing Certificates of Participation to finish the remaining projects. Still, our pressing need for classrooms continued.

By purchasing the ISC and then leveraging the facility in a sale-leaseback arrangement, we were able to accomplish two important objectives despite the difficult economic times. First, we were able to fund right away the construction of three additional elementary schools in fast-growing areas of the county. If not for the ISC sale-leaseback, those three schools would not have been built until sometime during the 2007 building program, and more elementary students would have been in trailers for a longer period of time. Second, we achieved a long-term goal of having a centralized district office with adequate room for support staff, classrooms for staff development, and needed space for large gatherings such as School Board meetings. The benefits of the ISC in terms of efficiency, productivity, communication, and collaboration have been apparent time after time.

I was disappointed that much of this information was not included, or was misrepresented, in Sunday’s article. What also makes that story disturbing is that much of it was based on allegations by a former school district employee who proved to be both dishonest and unethical. Is that a credible source? He resigned from the school district, but before his employment actually ended he had to be escorted out of the ISC by a police officer. We conducted an investigation into the actions of this employee after he resigned and uncovered numerous incidents in which he lied, abused his position and intimidated subordinates, was deceitful, and conspired to misuse taxpayer money for his personal agenda. We were fortunate to catch his attempted misuse of public funds at an early point, so we elected not to expend tax dollars to prosecute him. However, had I known before he resigned what the investigation later revealed, he would have been fired for cause instead.

It also is telling that not once during this individual's employment with us did he express any concerns about-- or opposition to-- the development or funding of the building program, including the sale-leaseback of the ISC. In fact, he was very instrumental in suggesting financial options to us at the time. The reporter was given all of this background information regarding his “source,” but none of it made it into the story. I share it with you tonight so that you, our constituents, will question and wonder why this source should have credibility – with reporters or anyone – and so you will know the truth about the ISC transaction, rather than the newspaper's version of the so-called facts.

If you have been following this series, you are aware that the Board has taken two significant steps to address potential issues the reporter raised. First, the Board directed me to review our policy on the acquisition of sites and suggest improvements in the language to ensure it is as strong and clear as it needs to be. We have made those improvements and that policy revision is on the Board’s agenda for adoption tonight. Secondly, the Board authorized the hiring of a third party to review our land purchases since 1999 and to issue a report of its findings. Former U.S. Attorney for the Middle and Northern Districts of Georgia Joe D. Whitley has been leading that effort and we expect to receive his report within the next few weeks. That report will be released to the Board of Education and the public at that time.

In conclusion, you can review everything related to this AJC series on our web site at www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us. There you will see our response to the June 12th article, along with each one of the past communications regarding this series. I encourage anyone interested in the facts to review this information. We have nothing to hide. To the contrary, we are very proud of the work we have done to provide classrooms for students, as well as this Instructional Support Center, which supports teachers and houses staff who perform critical systemwide functions that directly relate to our core business of teaching and learning. We are grateful for the affirming, encouraging responses we have received continuously since the first article ran on March 6, and we are committed to keeping you informed of any future developments with the AJC series. Thank you for your confidence in and support of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Click below for previous messages on this issue:
- Superintendent's Update: June 10, 2011
- Superintendent's Update: May 21, 2011
- Superintendent's Update- April 30, 2011
- Superintendent recommends and Gwinnett County Board of Education approves hiring of third party to investigate land acquisitions by GCPS
- A message from the Superintendent- April 1, 2011
- A message from CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks- March 4, 2011