The executive board of the Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP voted last week to ask the Bulloch County Board of Education not to renew the contract of Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson.
Wilson's current contract runs through July 2018, but the board is required to renew or negotiate a new contract with him or inform him by Dec. 31 if it will not be renewed. They have been in closed-door discussions over his contract status.
The unanimous position taken by the local NAACP leadership follows the resignation of Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mary Felton, effective June 30, after Wilson did not offer her a contract renewal. Felton served three and a half years as the highest ranking African-American administrator in the school system, and objections to her nonrenewal have been discussed along with the NAACP's position on Wilson. However, the branch's top officers say it is not the main factor.
For months now, the Board of Education also has been discussing the possibility of a minority teacher and administrator recruitment plan without adopting one, after Wilson presented a proposal in February. It drew from ideas developed by a Minority Recruitment Committee, which met several times in 2016. A plank in the school system's strategic plan, revised in 2015, calls for "a diversity recruitment plan to attract more diverse teacher applicants."
Wilson has cited progress, since the portion of minorities employed as teachers and administrators in the school system grew from 11 percent of all certified faculty and staff in 2011 to 14 percent at the beginning of last school year.
But the Bulloch NAACP's two top leaders say members are dissatisfied with the number of minorities teaching and leading in the school system, particularly at some schools. They also say they are concerned with student learning.
"We are really not satisfied with the direction that the school system is moving in. Our children are not making the progress that we think they should be making," Bulloch County NAACP President Pearl Brown said in a phone interview Thursday.
The success of minority students and the diversity of teachers in the classroom are related, Brown asserts.
"As far as everything that we're seeing, our children are just not being adequately educated, and we think one real problem with that is the lack of minorities. ...," she said. "We're not talking about just having a minority in the classroom, but we're talking about people that can relate to these children."
Bulloch NAACP First-Vice President James "Major" Woodall made a similar statement in a separate interview earlier this week. He alluded to school board members' calls for more research.
"Our students at the end of the day are the ones to benefit from this, and so if we are putting them in a position to be successful we cannot afford any more time to go past when we are looking for research after research after research," Woodall said. "The research has been done. The research has been presented and published. Diversity works."
Woodall was interviewed in follow-up this week after he spoke during the June 8 Board of Education meeting, where he included a statement that "a lot of people have expressed interest in not renewing" Wilson's contract. As NAACP first-vice president, Woodall said, he had been receiving many comments from people, including teachers and school administrators, "about the direction that our public education system here in this county is going," including concerns about diversity in the classrooms and about administration.
Says he has listened
In an interview this week, Wilson said he could understand the criticism if he and the board were ignoring the community's concerns but that this is far from the case. He pointed to the strategic planning process, the Minority Recruitment Committee and the continued discussion as examples of openness. Wilson cited the international accrediting agency AdvancED's recent five-year renewal of Bulloch County Schools accreditation, with positive comments from reviewers and a higher than average score, as a sign of success.
"If I was a superintendent that has not been trying to work with the community over the last five years and being very open about addressing things, it would be easy to say, ‘Well, nobody is listening,'" Wilson said. "But if you look back at the facts, and really it has been validated by the AdvancED report, this superintendent and this board, we've been very open with the community in allowing input as to what the issues are."
Wilson was interviewed before Woodall and Brown confirmed that the NAACP executive board had voted at its meeting Monday.
Asked to comment on the NAACP's concerns, Board of Education Chair Cheri Wagner also cited the AdvancED accreditation.
"While we can always improve, the Georgia Department of Education's assessment and accountability measures and our recent accreditation process through AdvancED speak for themselves," Wagner replied in an email.
Brown had also mentioned concerns about dropout rates, but Wagner noted that the local school system's graduation rate increased from 69 percent in 2011 to 84.9 percent in 2016.
The numbers again
During a May school board meeting, Wilson displayed graphs comparing Bulloch County's numbers of minority teachers and school administrators to nationwide figures from a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report, "The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce."
By the 2016-17 school year, 84 percent of Bulloch County's teachers were white, 14 percent were black and about 1 percent were Hispanic. Bulloch's reported percentage of minority teachers as of 2017 is higher than the 13 percent of teachers at rural schools nationally who were minorities in 2014, the most recent year in the national report.
With four African-American principals and one Hispanic principal employed going into the 2017-18 school year, one-third of the Bulloch school system's 15 school principals are minorities. That is higher than the 2014 national average.
But Woodall, citing a Governor's Office of Student Achievement report from 2015-16, referred to 13 percent as the portion of minority teachers and administrators in the Bulloch County system and said that is not proportional to the makeup of the student body. In recent Georgia Department of Education reports, 49 percent of the Bulloch County Schools' students are identified by ethnicities other than "white," including 38 percent who are African-American.
Wilson said he the NAACP has not said what its exact goals are on the diversity issue.
"So how does anyone have a productive conversation, much less a community-oriented solution, without details upon which we can agree or disagree and then move forward?" he asked.
As Wilson has pointed out before, he and the board have been advised that they cannot lawfully set targets for hiring certain numbers of people by race or ethnicity.
"But in the meantime, this board and this administration has held true to its word and its intent and its strategic plan. ...," he said. "We've said that we would make efforts toward minority recruitment, and as a result of those efforts, the facts show that we have made progress in Bulloch County Schools over the last five years."
In Woodall's comments during the June 8 school board meeting, he read from a letter by a former Transitions Learning Center alternative school program faculty member who asked "how the release of an administrator from this county faded into the background as though the correct process was granted." That administrator was Felton, as Woodall confirmed this week, and the letter writer asked every board member to explain how and why Felton's contract was not renewed.
Felton had accepted a job as an assistant principal at Claxton Elementary School in Evans County before Wilson delivered his recommendations for contract renewals, with Felton left out, to the Bulloch County board in May.
"Even having an initiative supposedly to help with minorities, it's not helping to increase the hiring of minorities if the minorities are hired and then fired," Brown said this week, "and I feel like more than one person should be looking at someone's evaluation in the central office, when you're going through evaluating people."
But she said Felton's nonrenewal was "not the major factor" in the NAACP's position on Wilson, since members were already leaning in this direction because of the other concerns.
"Now, that was another straw in it because I personally feel that she was a well-qualified person to hold that position," Brown said. "That's my personal opinion, but evidently others didn't see it that way."
Wilson recently named Dr. Deborah Mangum on an interim basis to the newly titled position of executive director of student support. At this point, his staff includes four executive directors, plus a chief operating officer and chief finance officer, but no assistant superintendents.
Mangum, who is African-American, was a Statesboro High School assistant principal last year. Woodall called her "an amazing educator."
‘A good guy'
He also said that Wilson "has done a tremendous job in regards to promotion of different ideas and innovative solutions," such as the Aspiring Leaders program for teachers.
"Mr. Wilson is a good guy, and I'm grateful for what he has done, and this is not an indictment on him, of his character, as a community leader, as someone who has invested so much into thi s town and into this county," Woodall said. "However, it's a leveling of priority for our students, of what direction we want to go in."
Brown and Woodall also mentioned a preference for a superintendent with teaching experience. Wilson, whose previous top degree was a Master of a Business Administration, was the school system's chief financial officer before the board chose him as superintendent five years ago. He satisfied a requirement for educator certification under an earlier version of his contract and in May received his Education Specialist, or six-year, degree in educational leadership from Georgia Southern University.
"The superintendent has met all of the state, as well as additional local, requirements and goals asked of him upon his initial hire," Wagner wrote Friday.
She said she agreed with Wilson about the board's being open on the diversity issue but needing to hear what the goals are.
"We are nondiscriminatory in our hiring practices," Wagner wrote. "We look forward to hearing goals and will continue to be transparent and open in our discussions."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.