Atlanta Public School Superintendent Davis retires this week – a review of his three year tenure

[Note – Maureen Downey at the AJC’s Get Schooled blog first published my assessment of retiring Atlanta Public School Superintendent Erroll B. Davis’ tenure in two parts (Part I & Part II). The entire article is republished below.]

Deep into a cheating scandal that made national headlines, Erroll B. Davis, Jr. was called upon to bring sanity back to the Atlanta Public Schools. As he assumed his post in July 2011, he took on a school district that was completely demoralized and non-functional as new charges mounted by the day.  Within days of his appointment, the GA Bureau of Investigation issued a devastating report on the extent of the cheating – 178 teachers, principals and administrators were alleged to be involved – and 35 including prior superintendent Beverly Hall were subsequently indicted.

Davis immediately removed the named individuals from the classroom and administrative positions and began a strong effort to begin cleaning up the mess and restoring sense of ethics to the district. As current Board of Education Chair Courtney English has often said, “Erroll willingly ran towards the fire” and Davis brought some stability to an out of control and dysfunctional school system.

He was initially brought in as the interim superintendent for 90 days and will finish up three years when he retires on July 6th. Over the course of his tenure, Davis was charged not only with cleaning up the scandal, but also with overseeing an urban school district with nearly 50,000 students. As he winds up his service to the community, it is important to consider his impact on the district and to review the many challenges he faced and the decisions he made.

Davis is a highly accomplished individual with extensive experience in both the private and public sector. He trained as an electrical engineer and then later earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. During his career, he served as vice president of finance, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of two large utility companies. He then took on the role of chancellor of the University System of Georgia and was responsible for the state’s 35 public colleges and universities. He has also served as a director of several large companies (including General Motors) and as a trustee for several large universities.

In other words, his credentials as an administrator and executive are impeccable.

As the top administrator in a public school system that had numerous problems beyond the cheating scandal Davis applied  his extensive experience to address the many issues APS was facing. The following is a selection of some of the tough issues he faced and some of the policy issues he promoted.

School accreditation restored – Prior to his arrival, SACS – the accrediting agency for APS’ high schools – had placed APS on probation as a result of significant Board of Education governance issues. The probation was lifted five months after Davis arrived on the scene and in an interview Davis said “I also was charged…by SACS to help the board. So, I worked for it, but yet I was supposed to give it guidance.” He further told the Board “I want you to focus on policy. I want to know what direction you want to go, and I will help you by putting together a strategic plan…Other than that, I want to talk about education and policy and direction at the board meetings, and not school bus routes and things of that nature.”

Was Davis instrumental in fixing Board relations? It is not clear what direct impact he had on the matter. However, his administrative credentials certainly were respected by the Board and his guidance likely had some influence on the Board as it repaired its problems.

Educational Initiatives – On new educational initiatives during Davis’ tenure, there were limited broad-based programs. He improved access to courses online, added advanced math at all middle schools, provided foreign language courses to all students starting in 4th grade and made efforts to better identify students qualifying for the early intervention and remedial programs. In the most recent budget additional funding was provided to the Fine Arts, Special Education, Athletics and Remedial Education programs. However, his administration never explained how these funding increases would improve educational outcomes. Additionally, funds were approved for 50 new administrators for Student Support Teams to track and work with at-risk children, but again no expected outcomes were discussed. To be fair, the Board never pushed for ongoing updates on the districts educational performance; instead they waited until the administration published the Balanced Scorecard well after the school year was over.

Other than that, the best that can be said is that early in his tenure he shut down a number of education reforms initiatives that he considered to be failed projects. By doing so, he at least avoided additional expenditures on efforts which were not producing meaningful results.

Educational Outcomes – While Davis is an accomplished executive and administrator, he often said that he was not a K-12 education expert and the results on improving educational outcomes under his watch showed his lack of experience.

It might have been different if the executive in charge of the Curriculum & Instruction had been a dynamic leader who was focused on setting objectives and getting results. However, this was not the case and, at best, the educational outcomes were mixed.

Although the district’s graduation rate increased dramatically from 51% in FY12 to 59% in FY13, the improvement was over an admittedly abysmal starting point. It is not clear if any of Davis’ educational initiatives had an impact on the increase, but the district did employ a strategy to help students recapture credits to reach the graduation standard and some of the improvement was simply the result of better record keeping and tracking of the graduating cohorts. The final graduation rates for FY14 have not been determined yet, but it is anticipated there will be some additional improvement in the 5% range.

Another indicator of educational achievement is the district’s performance on the State CRCT reading and math exams taken in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grades. The report on APS’ 2014 performance has just been released and there was limited or no improvement over the prior year.

In all, there is not much here. Davis had limited experience in the area and he did not get the strong support from his executive level cabinet to improve academic outcomes and the results (or lack thereof) speak for themselves.

Class sizes and class size waivers – During Davis’ tenure, there was a push by parents and some Board members to reduce the size of classes in the district. Could this have had an impact on educational outcomes? We will never know. Davis – while paying lip service to the idea – essentially fought against allocating the necessary resources in each of the last two budget seasons. While he admitted that small class sizes were better than large class sizes, he did not believe the impact was sufficient to allocate a greater amount of resources to hire more teachers and bring the average class size down. Additionally, the only way to fund more teachers was to reduce administrative costs which he was consistently and adamantly against.

Parents saw this as a significant issue as did many Board members and it was a significant issue during the last Board of Education election. However, Davis was never convinced that smaller class sizes were as important as other factors such as teacher effectiveness, and as a result, another part of his legacy at APS will be that class sizes remained above the GA Department of Education standard.

Position on charter schools – While Davis acknowledged that the district’s charter schools were a part of APS, his initial recommendations on the addition or expansion of charter schools were generally against doing so. To some extent, this may have been due to the lack of a long-term strategic plan for charter schools, but it is also clear that Davis believes that charter schools take resources away from traditional schools. He has always maintained that charter schools are better funded on a per student basis than traditional schools – a position that his highly questionable.

At the most extreme point, he withheld funds from the existing charter schools based on a dubious reading of the law. The charter schools subsequently challenged that action in court and won in a unanimous decision by the GA Supreme Court.

It is also interesting to note that, while Davis initially recommended against granting the expansion request of Drew Charter School and the start-up petition of the Atlanta Classical Academy, after subsequent modifications to the petitions, he acquiesced and the Board of Education approved them both. Additionally, he did recommend approval of the conversion charter for the Centennial K-8 School.

Davis does get credit for supporting the work done by the APS Office of Innovation which screens charter petitions and oversees existing charter school operations. The group is perceived to do a very good job by charter school operators and it is considered to be very fair in its determinations even though the Office recommend that most charter school petitions be denied for substantive reasons.

As he retires, Davis’ leaves APS with the largest charter school population in the state with over 7,000 students or nearly 14% of the district’s enrollment in charter schools that are generally performing well. He also hands off to the new superintendent a strong team that oversees charter schools in the system

Proposed school redistricting controversy and limited outcome – Davis immediately recognized that the district was inefficiently using its school buildings and that there were too many small schools with too few students that were draining resources from educational priorities. He led an effort to reduce the number of schools and recommended closing 13 schools in the district. The ensuing public outcry was substantial and, while Davis remained staunch in his belief that the 13 schools should be closed, it was ultimately up to the Board of Education to decide. In the end, the Board approved seven school closures. Additionally, there was a lot of criticism regarding the process the district followed to reach its conclusions. As several Board member noted in the aftermath – “It was a complete mess.”

Davis was correct in trying to address the problem, but due to Board opposition, he was only partially successful in his first attempt and Davis was subsequently able to merge the King and Coan Middle Schools. However, future Boards will have to deal with the issue of underutilized schools at some point.

Relationship with the Board of Education – During his tenure, Davis had to work with two very different Boards of Education. Initially, he started with a Board that due to its dysfunction had caused the District’s accreditation to be placed on probation by SACS. As a result of the probationary status, the Board was initially more conciliatory and made efforts to have a good relationship with the superintendent. However, as time progressed, it was clear that Davis became more impatient with the Board and considered many of their policy decisions as wrongheaded.

This was the case with the final decision on redistricting and it was the case on many policy issues contained in the budget. As previously noted, class size, administration versus in-school spending and authority granted to principals were contentious issues. In all cases, the positions favored by Davis were passed by the first Board, but it was clear that many of the Board members were not pleased with the outcome.

To a great extent, the chairman of the prior board strongly supported Davis’ positions on the issues and worked to sway the board to grant approval for Davis’ recommendations. However the City’s voters were not in favor of many of these positions and four incumbents did not seek reelection and two incumbents (including the chairman) were swept out of office.

The election of six out of nine new board members was to some extent due to the anti-incumbency mood in the electorate, but it also was a referendum on Davis’ leadership and the direction of APS. Some of the top issues during the election included greater autonomy for principals, smaller class sizes and reallocation of resources from administrative functions to direct instruction and the voters supported the candidate’s positions which were in direct opposition to the views held by Davis.

With the installation of the new board, the first real test of how the relationship with Davis would evolve was the budget discussions. The new Board pushed for changes and reallocations of funding and mostly got nowhere. Davis appeared to become more autocratic in his responses and at times seemed distanced from the issues under discussion. While the budget discussions never reached an acrimonious state, it was also evident that the new board ultimately decided to bypass Davis and his administration. In the end, the board approved the budget proposal made by Davis with essentially no changes, but they also indicated they would work with the new superintendent to revise and amend the budget passed.

It is also important to note that the new board appears to take its responsibility of maintaining a cordial relationship with the superintendent very seriously. However, Davis did not return the favor and as his tenure was reaching its endpoint, his patience appeared to be strained and, at times, he was dismissive of the direction the board wanted to follow.

Selection of his senior cabinet – If there was one surprise during Davis’ tenure it was his selection of the senior executives that were charged with actually running the day to day operations. Often it appeared that Davis accepted and depended on less than a stellar executive team. Maybe they were good bureaucrats, but few of them could be identified as strong charismatic leaders in their own right.

I have already noted the lack of initiatives coming out of Curriculum & Instruction, the largest and most important division in the system. But the problem extended further – the chief of staff function never operated properly and the human resources function was staffed by an interim for more than a year. Additionally, the communications coming out of APS never appeared to get in front of the issues and instead was only reactive to events after the fact. In many ways, the administration often appeared to withhold information until the last-minute or provide it only after a crisis arose. Some have argued that inadequate communications was his administrations biggest failing.

To some extent, Davis began to rectify this as he brought on new leadership in human resources and information technology, but it was too little and too late to have much impact on his legacy at APS.

Getting top-notch talent during a time of incredible turmoil in the system was likely difficult. However that was the job Davis accepted and the lackluster results he achieved in his last two years are largely due to his inability to attract and staff his cabinet with top-level talent.

Financial oversight and budgetary stewardship – At several points during his administration, Davis took credit for balancing the annual revenues and expenditures. During his tenure the General Fund reserve remained stable at the $81+ million mark. While Davis attributes this to excellent expenditure management; the reality is that the bulk of the annually budgeted deficit was overcome by an increase in revenues that had not been budgeted. What Davis can rightfully take credit for is generally hitting the expenditure target set by the budget. However, the budgeted deficits generally were closed due to higher than projected revenues and were not the result of exceptional expenditure management. Regardless of how he got there, he does get credit for leaving a reasonably strong General Fund reserve as a cushion for the next administration.

Given his strong private industry experience, he is well aware that strong companies are driven by establishing clear objectives and then holding themselves accountable for meeting them. Even so, over the last three budget seasons the process of establishing objectives and then funding those to achieve the desired results never happened. In fact, the budget process during the last two years was wholly non-transparent as to the objectives and desired outcomes. Additionally, Davis chaffed at the idea of any limits placed on his authority to transfer funds between divisions. In the end, the budget passed by the Board was treated as a suggestion and, based on a comparison of actual to budgetary spending; Davis transferred resources as he pleased. And so the budget that is supposed to represent the will and the policy of the Board in fact was often rendered meaningless.

Focus on central administration control – The debate on the allocation of funding between spending in the schools and spending on administration was a consistent issue in each budget cycle. Davis’ focus was always on central control and in every budget cycle Davis’ position – that the administrative function needed to be enlarged – always won out over spending on educational priorities. On this, Davis never wavered even when an extensively researched article appeared in the AJC (see here) that showed APS was spending nearly twice as much on administration compared to any other district in the State. At times he attributed the differences to “accounting allocations” and at other times to the spending requirements of an urban district.

The fact of the matter is that during his tenure, only 56-58% of every dollar spent was on direct instruction. Davis’ tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to spin it a different way.

The conflict between centralized bureaucracy versus in-school spending came to a head on several occasions. The most prominent was when the principal at North Atlanta High School resigned due to significant problems in dealing with the unresponsive bureaucracy in the downtown office. As a result of the ensuing fiasco, Davis set up a Principals Council to get input from the principals around the district and did implement some of their recommendations. In addition, Human Resources began taking steps to more effectively and timely respond to the needs of the school leaders. However, the culture of central control is deeply imbedded in the downtown bureaucracy and will need systemic changes if it is to serve as a strong support function for the in-school leaders.

Inadequate systems were always blamed – On many occasions, Davis lamented the fact that the internal systems were inadequate and the data in the systems lacked integrity. These combined problems were often pointed to as the reason that failures occurred. There is no question that this in fact was the case when he accepted the position. However, even in the most recent budget discussions he continued this refrain. At no point did he ever announce what systems had been improved or what data integrity issues were resolved during his three-year tenure.

Clearly, he gets credit for recognizing that the systems needed to be upgraded and fixed, but there is no indication that the administration made significant strides towards fixing and improving them during his tenure.

Scandals during his tenure – Any large urban school district will have its share of scandals over the course of three years. The key is to understand if the scandals could have been avoided with better management decisions.

The most prominent scandal took place in October 2012 at North Atlanta High School after some parents complained of discrimination by certain teachers and administrators at the school. Davis summarily fired or transferred all of the top administrators at the school and then launched an internal investigation. The final investigative report showed that, while there was a perception of discrimination by some students, in fact, no discrimination was found. This was a classic case of “ready, fire, aim” and a number of good educators got smeared in the process.

Unfortunately for Davis, the discrimination scandal was self-inflicted and the fall out severely damaged the reputation of his administration. He was front and center in a process in which he appeared to accept unverified claims from Board members and the community.

From an operations standpoint, the administration at times seemed to struggle with implementing bus routes and encountered problems two years running. To be fair, the administration made recommendations to the Board based for logistical reasons and these recommendations were not approved. But the bus routes were never tested in advance and often took months to correct all the problems.

There were other scandals which the administration handled reasonably well. Davis came down hard on the Grady High School football team fraudulent enrollment case. He also took quick action when two paraprofessionals were filmed abusing students, although he did not publicly reveal the problem until a month after he learned of the abuse.

Conclusions – Without question Davis is a very charismatic personality and his managerial and professional credentials are impeccable. He was decisive, swift and very effective in stabilizing and restarting a school system rocked by the cheating scandal. At the same time, Davis’ time extended well beyond the initial phase and the last two years of his tenure will most likely be considered unremarkable.

During this time Davis seemed to focus on centralized control versus improving educational outcomes in the district. Was this focus driven by his experience in large public utilities that require strong central control? Was it driven by his admitted lack of K-12 education experience? Or was it driven by the lack of a strong executive support team? These are questions we can only speculate about but the end result remains the same – after a great start, the last two years resulted a in limited impact on the educational outcomes for the students in APS.

Perhaps, current Board Chairman Courtney English said it best – Davis “ran towards the fire” when the system was in crisis and disarray and, for this, the City of Atlanta will always be grateful for his leadership, experience and results in moving APS out of the depths of an all-consuming scandal.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

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