Background on Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Involvement in Partnership Gwinnett – February 2012
In 2006, Gwinnett County did not have a coherent, proactive focus on economic development. As a result, the county frequently lost new business to neighboring cities and states with a more aggressive and focused economic development posture. Additionally, insufficient attention was being paid to encouraging expansion of local businesses already operating in the county. The consequence for Gwinnett was that the county’s tax base was not as robust as it needed to be in order to meet the demands of Gwinnett’s growing and changing population.
The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce responded to this negative reality by establishing an innovative economic development vehicle within the Chamber. Partnership Gwinnett was comprised of the Chamber, Gwinnett County Government, the Gwinnett healthcare community, and numerous local businesses and community-based organizations. Realizing the highly favorable reputation of Gwinnett County Public Schools and its positive impact in attracting and retaining businesses for the county, the Chamber invited the school district to be actively involved in Partnership Gwinnett.
Due to the funding restrictions and limitations on a local school district, GCPS could not and did not make a monetary contribution to Partnership Gwinnett. The funds we allocated to support Partnership Gwinnett had to be dedicated to expenditures for which the district received a service in return. Therefore, we elected to fund two positions for the Partnership Gwinnett initiative devoted fulltime to economic development strategies. Increasing the county’s business/industry tax base benefits all in the county. It promotes innovation, creates jobs, increases the county’s wealth, and generates revenue that is sorely needed to fund the services provided by entities like Gwinnett County Government and Gwinnett County Public Schools.
In response to the Chamber’s invitation, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks approached the Gwinnett County Board of Education about the district appropriately joining the Partnership Gwinnett initiative. The Board agreed with the benefits outlined and the funding approach identified. The Board insisted that the funding be done on an annual basis and that the benefits of the district’s involvement be evaluated each year.
With the economic downturn that struck in 2007-08 and continues today, the significant value of Partnership Gwinnett to our county’s economic vitality has become even more apparent. In its first five years, Partnership Gwinnett generated over $800 million in economic development, boosting the school district’s revenue from the local tax base by more than $6 million. The proactive and productive economic development posture for Gwinnett County continues to reap benefits for the school district, which has been able to balance its budget without raising the operational millage rate during these difficult economic times.
We asked GCPS how it was determined that the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce had generated over $800 million in economic activity that allowed the school district to gain more than $6 million in additional tax revenue. They said they had never posed that question to the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. Wanting to learn how it was determined that $800 million in economic activity had been generated, we decided to pose that question to the Gwinnett Chamber ourselves.
We also filed an open records request to get copies of the minutes of the GCPS board meeting in which this payment was approved. We were provided with a statement that the board did not have to approve it because GCPS Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks had the authority to make this expenditure without a vote of the school board. In response to open records requests, we were told that no other paperwork exists, such as a contract or letter agreement.
In a March 19th email, Nick Masino, Senior Vice-President of the Gwinnett Chamber, said the following:
"There is no written contract, however there is a letter agreement identifying the positions being funded, between the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and Gwinnett County Public Schools for their annual payment for the salaries and benefits of two Partnership Gwinnett economic development managers. The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce lobbies for a variety of issues which benefit our community and members. Public dollars are not utilized to advocate for passage of a tax measure."
Apparently, judging from the response to the open records request, GCPS lost the letter agreement or did not keep a copy, because the letter agreement was not produced.