His detractors call him destructive and supporters say his steady leadership has stabilized Atlanta Public Schools after a cheating scandal that still haunts the district.
In a specially called session Monday the Atlanta Public School Board will decide whether superintendent Erroll Davis has finished the job asked of him and it’s time to go; or whether he’s so integral to the district’s turnaround his contract needs to be extended.
There are loud advocates on both sides, and a deeply divided school board in the middle.
The nine board members delayed a decision on Davis’ contract for a second time after holding a three-hour executive session to talk about it behind closed doors late Monday. Board member Byron Amos described it as a “robust discussion.”
Molly Woo, a vocal opponent of Davis since he removed six administrators from North Atlanta High in October, said it’s little wonder the board has had a difficult time making up its mind to extend the contract of a superintendent who was backed by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Nathan Deal and approved by a unanimous vote of the board in 2011.
“He started out as a good administrator, but he seems to have devolved,” said Woo. She said she backed him until he removed the administrators from North Atlanta High, which sparked an outcry from parents and students that still echoes during public-comment periods at board meetings.
The superintendent, a former chancellor of the University System of Georgia who came out of retirement to take the job, has also weathered criticism over redistricting and changing bus routes.
Woo said her son, a senior at North Atlanta High, was relying for his college applications on the recommendations of some of the administrators Davis removed. “He just made a decision that destroyed the education flow of about 1,200 students,” she said.
Woo and others say Davis’ actions have largely discredited all the work he’s done since he took over as superintendent the same week the state released its report implicating about 180 APS educators in cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. The school system is seeking to remove those educators, many of whom have challenged their firings at tribunals. Davis has sometimes been a witness.
On the other side, Julie Davis Salisbury, who is co-founder of Step Up for Public Schools and has a child in North Atlanta High, said the superintendent has been unfairly criticized by parents focused too narrowly on their children’s schools instead of on Davis’ work across the district.
“He came on board in the midst of two major crises facing APS, with the cheating scandal placing public trust in jeopardy and board dysfunction calling our accreditation into question,” said Salisbury. “He has since moved the district to a place where we can actually begin to build something rather than fix something.”
Davis could not be reached for comment Tuesday; nor could district 4 board member Nancy Meister, who appears to lead the opposition to extending his contract. On Monday night Meister made a motion that passed requiring a super majority of seven votes, instead of a simple majority of five, to renew Davis’ contract.
Board chairman Reuben McDaniel said Tuesday he and four board members followed that by voting to delay the vote again (Meister and three members opposed) because “during earlier discussions, it became clear that there were aspects of Mr. Davis’ contract extension we needed to discuss prior to reaching consensus by a super majority.”
Those may include whether to offer a one-year contract instead of the two-year term Davis has requested. Neither McDaniel nor Amos would say whether that step could win seven board votes. Amos said he appreciates critics of Davis and has been one himself, when Davis called for closing schools in Amos’ district last year.
“Looking at the totality of his work, I believe he has done a decent job for what we brought him in to do ” said Amos, who declined to say which way he’ll vote. “I do think we need stability in the system, and some people think that means keeping the superintendent around, but it could mean hiring a new one for a longer term.”