At the November Monthly Board of Education meeting, the Gwinnett County Board of Education listened to the community’s concerns regarding schooling and education. The November meeting saw tension between some of the speakers and board members.
A recurring speaker, citizen and social studies teacher Mr. Brian Westlake was stopped by Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks prior to beginning his speech. In what seemed to be a prepared statement, Wilbanks stated Westlake has been “disrespectful and unprofessional” at prior meetings. Wilbanks warned Westlake to possess “Civility and respect for the organization of this board that provides you with a paycheck.”
In past meetings, Westlake has spoken firmly, or even assertively when addressing the board. At the monthly October meeting on the 15th, he started his timed address by saying, “Board members, I do not relish the monthly reminders of this board’s failures, so tonight I want to be hopeful.” In his statement, he questioned what actions the board planned to take in addressing the issues community members had been presenting regarding their handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic, access to technology, and student equity.
Meanwhile, at the September 17th meeting he asserted the board “managed to raise new teacher salaries by 14%, only percentage points below the rate of inflation. But you did manage to raise the superintendent’s salary by more than 46%. Ensuring that he would make 50% more than the president of the United States. You failed to ensure that our students had all the devices they needed to be successfully engaged in digital learning during this pandemic.” This speech was met with applause from other attendees at the meeting.
Westlake gave his response to Wilbanks through Facebook, stating:
“Wilbanks’ comments were directed at me but meant to send a message to any teacher who dares to speak as a concerned citizen on matters of public concern. Remember to stay strong and let your moral compass guide you. Only through courage and solidarity will we be able to build the schools our children deserve! In solidarity, always and forever!”
Another moment of contention came between community parent Terri Stalker and Board member Dr. Mary Kay Murphy. In the closing seconds of her speech, Stalker shared her concerns about the comments which Murphy made in a deposition for a case filed by the NAACP against the Gwinnett Elections Commission. The concerned parent quoted Dr. Murphy’s words of uncertainty with opinions on segregation. She stated at the meeting she was “very concerned that’s not getting more voice than it has,” referring to the comments in the deposition.
As she left the podium, she was called back by Dr. Murphy, who asked if she was being called out in this instance. This was in which the parent responded that she was indeed putting her in the spotlight. Murphy then stated, “There is a deposition that has been made available to the public since 2017, and if you were to read the full deposition, you’ll find that the quotes that you’re reporting are not the full story.” She also stated the deposition was three years ago and asked interested parties to read the full deposition. Board member Louise Radloff r cut off Dr. Murphy before she could say more, stating, “Dr. Murphy, we are not going to argue at this point.”
The comments in question occurred while Dr. Murphy was being questioned about her experience in teaching. She confirmed teaching at segregated schools in Georgia, including Marietta High School, and a school in DeKalb county. When asked if she supported segregation at that time, she stated she had “no opinion.” When asked if she had an opinion then, in 2017, she stated she still did not. At the end of the deposition, she asked to correct her statement on record, explaining:
“I was in segregated schools, which were lawful at the time, but that doesn’t mean that I agreed with them or agreed with the premise about which they were structured. I won’t go into detail except to say to you that, for all my career, I have worked to right unlawful balances in the area of education, as I believe my resumé would indicate to you.”
The experience in question includes positions at Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Morris Brown College in 1999 for three years, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. She also described groups and programs she was involved in supporting black, and especially black male students. However, when questioned in the deposition about incidents of racism that occurred in Gwinnett County Schools while she was a member of the board, she continued to state either that she had no opinion, or that she could not remember the incident.
A copy of the complete deposition can be found here.