Davis builds integrity in Atlanta schools after scandal



Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

On a Thursday at the end of June 2011, Erroll B. Davis Jr. retired from his position as the chancellor of the University System of Georgia. That Friday, he began as the superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools District. The next Tuesday, he was handed an 800-page report detailing the widespread cheating that had plagued the district during 2009.

“One can’t have any reaction besides extreme disappointment,” Davis said.

Davis will give the 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater on Week Seven’s theme, “The Ethics of Cheating.” During his lecture, Davis will discuss the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal and the steps he has taken to eliminate the atmosphere of cheating in Atlanta and to replace it with an environment of integrity.

When Davis took over as interim superintendent, there were rumors of corruption. The district was already on probation for problems related to the school board’s governance, but the immensity of the problems and ensuing scandal was not exposed until Davis received the massive report in early July 2011.

The report indicated that cheating was taking place in 44 of 56 schools investigated. There were 178 suspected culprits, including teachers and principals. Not only was Davis immediately responsible for reacting to the report, he was also told by special investigators that he would have to read all 800 pages alone, because even those high up in the administration were complicit in the cheating.

Davis entered the field of public service as chancellor of the University System of Georgia in 2006 after a long career in corporate management. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1965, he earned a master’s degree in finance from the University of Chicago in 1967. He began working as the president of Alliant Energy Corporation in 1998, eventually becoming the CEO and chairman of the board of the corporation.

In the days following the revelation of cheating in 78.6 percent of Atlanta schools, Davis went into action, proposing how to deal with the crisis and formulating a plan to reorganize and re-prioritize Atlanta’s school system.

His immediate plan included a number of bullet points for action including: removing all personnel implicated in wrongdoing; developing an automatic warning system that triggers when scores change suspiciously; establishing mandatory ethics training for all school personnel; and relocating the Office of Internal Resolution, the district’s investigative office, into the Internal Audits office, so it would report directly to the board.

After reading the report, Davis placed every teacher or principal mentioned on leave. Since then, 125 of the APS employees named in the report have retired or resigned, 12 have been removed through a tribunal process and 25 remain on leave as they await the completion of the tribunal process.

“I’m optimistic that within a month or so we will have resolved all of those,” Davis said.

On July 5, 2012, Davis wrote an open letter to the people of Atlanta, detailing the progress made in the cheating scandal case.

“In my view, ethics should always be more important than achieving goals and targets. Under my administration, ethics violations will always be much more severely punished than other performance issues,” Davis wrote.

“This is vitally important for us because despite policies and procedures put in place to make cheating and other improprieties more difficult, it is much more effective to have ethical employees who would never get involved in wrongdoing,” the letter continued.

Though the majority of the guilty personnel have been removed from the school district, Davis said there is still much work needed to be done to rehabilitate the system. It has more than 200 programs in place to promote a healthier environment. One of Davis’ priorities is to de-emphasize the focus on reaching a particular test score, he said.

It is clear Davis is intolerant of ethical missteps or errors.

“I’m trying to eliminate what I call the ‘polite tolerance of ineptitude,’ ” Davis said.

Another issue Davis seeks to eliminate is the dearth of strong functional leadership, he said. The school system operates on a line-management style — installing robust functional leaders who focus on things, not people, will contribute to effective management, Davis said. Functional leaders will focus on aspects such as how grant money is being used and whether students are missing too many classes. Strong functional leaders look throughout organizations and maintain certain parameters for success.

“The reality is that in public life, strong functional managers are attacked as overhead, and that, to me, is one of the great fallacies, or lack of understanding, of the value of functional leadership,” he said.

When Davis retired from his position as chancellor, he expected to have time to relax but was asked to take the job as the superintendent until a suitable replacement could be found.

“I was asked to do all of these assignments,” he said. “I never sought any of them out — this job was definitely not on my bucket list.”

Though things have not progressed as he expected when he took the job in July 2011, Davis said he finds the work noble and it needs to be done. The Atlanta school board has twice extended Davis’ contract, most recently through June 2013.

“I am proud that I’m here and trying to have an impact,” Davis said.

When Davis’ work is completed in Atlanta, he does not know what he will do next. But the 68-year-old will likely continue to work.

“It’s easy to say I want to slow down and enjoy life, but I’m not sure if I’ll do anything but work,” he said. “I seem to be programmed to do that.”