Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis calls himself the accidental superintendent.
Recruited in 2011 for a temporary gig as interim superintendent, Davis soon led a district at the center of the nation’s largest cheating scandal.
Four days after Davis started work, nearly 200 APS educators and staff, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, were accused of participating in cheating on state standardized tests. Within a month, the Atlanta school board faced the possibility of removal by the governor.
Today, Davis retires from his “temporary” job after three years – his most recent attempt to quit the workforce after previously serving as an energy company executive and chancellor of the University System of Georgia.
Davis raced directly into the five-alarm fire that was APS during the first months of the cheating scandal and targeted APS’ most pressing problems. But once the immediate crisis had subsided, Davis’ efforts to lead the Atlanta schools forward through a thicket of political interests and internal dysfunction faltered.
Davis brought order to a district that could have slipped into chaos. But he hasn’t totally erased the legacy of cheating at APS, observers say.
“That’s a scar that’s there, that I don’t know when it will heal,” said former Atlanta school board chairwoman Brenda Muhammad. “I don’t know how many superintendents we’ll have before that goes away.”
Tough, ‘successful’ first year
Davis, 69, says he had zero K-12 education knowledge when he was hired. That didn’t stop him from acting decisively in his first months on the job.
Many top administrators were implicated in the cheating so Davis began the task of cleaning up the Atlanta schools largely alone.
With only the assistance of 5-Hour Energy drinks, Davis spent several sleepless days reading the 800-page state report outlining how the cheating happened and drafting the foundation of APS’ turnaround plan.
Within his first month, Davis issued an ultimatum to all 178 educators implicated: Resign or face termination. Within weeks, 41 quit or retired. Others sought hearings, and Davis and district staff devoted hours to testifying. About 20 educators were ultimately reinstated.
The firings left dozens of vacancies before the start of the new school year. As administrators scrambled to fill them, Davis faced another crisis: the potential removal of the Atlanta school board by the governor. The cheating scandal and the board’s infighting had given state officials serious concerns.
Davis and the board began working together to try to be more productive. By November 2011, the district was no longer at risk of losing accreditation.
“He walked into a situation where the entire academic side of the house was wiped out,” said APS board Chairman Courtney English, who was elected in 2009. Given that, English said, he had “a pretty successful school year.”
The job of Atlanta Public Schools superintendent was not one Davis asked for or needed, said APS board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown.
“He was retiring anyway, he could have gone off and travelled and played golf and enjoyed his time with his family. Instead he stepped up to the plate, rolled up his sleeves and got to work,” she said. “That is public service. Doing it not because you have anything to gain from it, but because you see a need and believe you can help fill the need.”
Different, difficult job
Running the Atlanta Public Schools, Davis said, was the hardest job he’s ever had.
To his frustration, much of his time was spent dealing with issues far away from the classroom.
“I can’t help children when I’m working on adult issues, when I’m trying to keep a board from being removed by the governor, while I’m trying to keep a board not be hauled into court by the Attorney General, while I’m trying to ferret out unethical teachers and principals,” he said.
And while Davis saw himself as an advocate for all children, like most superintendents he was beset with requests, protests and complaints focused on a single school, a single classroom or a single child.
“Few if any people are interested or concerned with all students. Everyone is interested in their child,” he said. “And the harsh reality is what might be best for your child might not be best for the entire system. People are more often than not quite frankly unwilling to accept logic.”
As the board extended Davis’ contract, the district made changes like ensuring all middle schools had advanced math classes and students in all schools had better access to foreign languages. And Davis led the district to quantify just how unfair the distribution of resources was across APS.
More APS students passed high-stakes state tests in reading and math this year than in 2011, roughly paralleling the trend statewide. And the district’s graduation rate improved for the Class of 2013.
But APS state test results and graduation rates still lag far behind the state in most subjects and grades. And just 59 percent of the Class of 2013 graduated on time, compared to 72 percent statewide.
Cuts, closings, clashes
Davis, who was trained as an engineer, made decisions he saw as grounded in data and logic. But some resented what seemed a bloodless, top-down approach.
By the fall of 2011, Davis had backed away from his promise to identify children affected by the cheating and give them extra help. Instead,the district launched tutoring programs open to all children. Identifying children affected by cheating was too hard, Davis said. To date, APS has not studied whether that extra support actually helped students.
Davis tried to bring order to the district’s patchwork of education reform initiatives, eliminating many programs that provided mentors, volunteers or other extra help to students.
Hutchinson Elementary School PTA President Chris Arrington said he went to board meetings to protest the removal of a boys’ mentoring program in one of Davis’ cuts. Davis’ logic didn’t sway him — and Arrington said Davis “just wasn’t responsive. All we got was a blank stare.”
Davis’ recommendation to close 13 schools at a savings of about $6.5 million a year as part of a redistricting brought hundreds of parents and students to plead before the board to save their schools. Davis, who is African-American, was depicted on one anti-redistricting flier wearing a Klan robe and threatening to “erase” black schools.
The board eventually voted to close seven schools and later closed one more. Today, APS still has schools that are significantly under-capacity, and the district spends millions more than it would if strict efficiency was the order of the day.
In the fall of 2012, Davis removed the interim principal and administrative staff of North Atlanta High School weeks before the principal was scheduled to be replaced by a permanent one. Davis believed the school’s academic performance fell short, and an internal report described a “climate of racial tension” at the school. Parents and students packed meetings to protest the removals.
Board Vice Chairwoman Nancy Meister’s district includes North Atlanta. She said Davis’ decision to remove the administrators was made too quickly and without enough consideration for how it would affect the school.
The decision had a “huge effect” on everyone involved, Meister said. “I don’t think he was as sensitive to that as he should have been.”
Davis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he thinks he was right to remove the administrators, but has had “second thoughts” about the timing.
In fact, Davis said he regrets few of his decisions as superintendent.
“If you posit a particular situation and said ‘If you had to do this again would you do it differently?’ the answer would probably always be yes,” he said. “But if you ask, ‘Would you make a different decision?’ I probably would say no. I probably would have done the same thing but in a different way.”
‘A pathway forward’
In retirement, Davis will continue to sit on the boards of General Motors, Union Pacific, PBS, and other institutions. He’ll travel the country with a National Academy of Sciences committee studying how communities can prepare for and recover from natural disasters.
Working full-time in K-12 education is not on his agenda.
On July 7, Meria Carstarphen, the former superintendent of the Austin, Texas public schools will become the new Atlanta superintendent.
Carstarphen said she got calls from people looking to recruit her to Atlanta before, but it wasn’t until this year that she was interested.
“I do think he made it possible for us superintendents to be able to seriously consider the job and to be able to see a pathway forward,” she said of Davis. “Atlanta’s been through a lot of pain and it’s time that they’ve got a fighting chance to move forward.”