‘I will do it,’ vows APS interim chief

Erroll Davis knew he had a mess on his hands when he agreed three weeks ago to temporarily lead the beleaguered Atlanta Public Schools.

How big of a mess only became apparent last week with the release of a report implicating 178 teachers and principals in a cheating scandal of national proportions.

“He jumped into a river full of alligators,” former state Sen. Seth Harp said.

But, after working in corporate America for more than 30 years, Davis said, he is ready for the public service phase of his life. For the next year, he will rely on lessons he learned as a CEO and as chancellor of the University System of Georgia to clean up the Atlanta school district and guide it back to legitimacy.

Even some of Davis’ sharpest critics say he can do it. Davis brings to the job a strategic mind and an extensive list of business, political and philanthropic contacts he will call on for support.

Harp, who described Davis as a person of integrity, sparred with Davis during hearings in 2010 over budget cuts for the University System. While Davis was combative and the two strong-willed men disagreed, Harp said, he trusted Davis to give him straight answers.

“Some heads have got to roll over this thing. And while he won’t like doing it, Erroll Davis won’t hesitate to take those heads right off,” Harp said.

The University System experienced record enrollment growth and sharp budget cuts under Davis’ tenure. Before retiring from that job June 30, he said he was proud of improved graduation rates and new nursing and teaching programs to address statewide worker shortages. But some lawmakers and parents criticized him for increasing tuition and fees instead of slashing spending.

In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week, Davis said he has little sympathy for teachers who say they cheated because they were pressured to do so. The educators implicated in widespread cheating on state tests have lost their right to work with children, he said.

Personnel actions will begin Monday at the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting. Given employees’ contractual and legal rights to due process, it will take at least four months and likely longer to work out the fallout among employees — including those he decides to fire.

“There is no place left in this organization for those who cheat,” Davis said.

“It is not compassionate to allow someone who has cheated to remain on payroll,” he said. “A major mistake leaders make is they show too much compassion for people and not the institution. I was hired to protect the institution and I will do it.”

Among other priorities are the need to get help for students who advanced only because someone cheated on their behalf and getting the district off accreditation probation.

The probation, which will be reviewed Sept. 30, is only indirectly related to cheating, since the elementary and middle schools where the test tampering occurred are not accredited.

Mark Elgart, head of the accrediting agency, called Davis “very capable” in an interview last week with WABE-FM (90.1). But, he said, “we’re very concerned with the ability of the school system to effectively move forward.”

“The challenges ahead of them are far greater today than they were before this report came out,” said Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, parent of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the city’s high schools.

How the school board responds to the report will be considered in determining whether the system gets off probation, Elgart said.

SACS placed the board on probation in January because months of bickering raised questions about board members’ ability to adequately govern the system.

In an act of unity last week, board members voted unanimously to give Davis a one-year contract to clean up the system. The tenure will give the district stability and help restore accreditation, Chairwoman Brenda Muhammad said.

Parents who have been critical of the board applauded the hire and the changes he will bring.

Davis announced immediate changes last week:

● APS will offer tutoring, after-school classes and other help for thousands of students affected by the scandal.

● All employees will be required to take annual online ethics courses, beginning Aug. 1.

● Extraordinary test score gains will trigger automatic investigation.

Davis vowed the district will listen better. Already, he has scheduled meetings with principals and teachers and plans to visit schools often. As chancellor, Davis visited at least three of the system’s 35 campuses each month.

The report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal castigated the district — and former Superintendent Beverly Hall — for a deeply embedded culture of cheating, cover-ups and obstruction. The 800-page report details how teachers, principals and others cheated by erasing and correcting students’ answer sheets.

The scandal, first reported by the AJC more than two years ago, has made news coast to coast. Its scope will likely inform the ongoing national discussion about testing as a measure of teachers’ performance.

Davis became interim superintendent July 1, the day after he retired as chancellor and four days before the state released the report. His term was extended to one year Thursday.

“He has not shied away from it at all,” Muhammad said.

His assignment is to clean up the district for a world-class superintendent who can stay longer, he said.

“Remember, Obama didn’t start the war but it’s his,” Davis said. “This one is now mine.”

Davis, 66, developed his work ethic early, graduating from high school at just 16 years old. He became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he earned an engineering degree at age 20. He earned a master’s degree in business by the time he was 22.

As befits his engineering background, Davis applies an analytical approach to problems and does not make hasty decisions, said Regent Willis Potts. He relies on facts and data, not emotion, Potts said. The State Board of Regents hired Davis in 2005.

Davis’ corporate background allows him to take a strategic approach. He constantly reviewed how short-term decisions would work into the system’s long-term goals, Potts said.

Davis’ work with the University System allowed him access to Atlanta’s business and philanthropic leaders, with whom the board wants to mend ties.

“He has just come in with the knowledge and the experience [and] the relationships,” Muhammad said.

While hiring Davis is a first step, the school board and community must realize it is a large task to replace a culture of cheating with one of learning and education, said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group.

“It is a big job that will take many years,” he said. “It will take many, many people and not just one man.”

Davis, who lives in Buckhead with his wife, balances his drive with a quick sense of humor.

At his first meeting with the board last week, he deflected Muhammad’s generous introduction by adding: “You didn’t have to say all that just because I didn’t have a name tag.”

Parent Abby Martin, who has followed the investigation since early last year, noticed the difference immediately from Hall’s often aloof demeanor. In an email, she said Davis’ “focus on tone, culture and performance showed he has the ability to grasp our issues and to lead us back on the right path.”

“Parents need to know that they can trust the system not to cheat their children again,” said Martin, whose three children attend city schools.

Davis said some of his best experiences as chancellor were interacting with students. Students said Davis made time for them, even when they just wanted to complain about large tuition increases.

He “never talked to us like we were kids,” said Corey Boone, past president of the student government association at Georgia Tech. “He treats people with respect.”

In the week he’s been with the system, Davis said, he has observed people and programs that deserve community respect.

APS employs 6,000 people, half of them teachers. Most work hard every day, Davis said. He questioned whether they get enough support. Everyone will be expected to excel, but, Davis said, he won’t demand success by any means necessary. People must act ethically and lawfully, he said.

“I will never be abusive, but I am frank and I am candid,” Davis said. “Those who step outside the ethical boundaries will face consequences.”