Catching up with Erroll Davis

This past weekend I was attending a conference in downtown Atlanta when I heard a very long parade going by on the street. Out of curiosity I stepped outside to watch for a few minutes. A marching band passed, then a convertible with a man and woman waving to the crowd. I glanced at the riders and recognized Erroll and Elaine Davis!

Erroll Davis

Erroll is the current superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. Like many Madisonians, I know him from his days as president of Alliant Energy Corp. I also got to know Elaine while we both served on the Dane County Salvation Army Board.

Like I said, it was a very long parade. I learned it was a prelude to the annual Atlanta Football Classic and was sponsored by the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. Erroll and Elaine had undoubtedly waved at thousands of familiar faces that morning as they rode through the city, but for some reason I caught their eye in the crowd and they recognized me. They pointed at me and yelled, “Wisconsin!” A classic “small world” moment for me. One minute I’m sitting in a conference in an unfamiliar city and the next moment I’m standing on the curb waving at people I know riding in a parade.

After leaving Alliant Energy in 2005, Erroll Davis was tapped as president of the University of Georgia System, where he served until 2011. Then, having announced his intention to retire, someone twisted his arm and convinced him to become interim superintendent of the Atlanta Public School System, which was in a mess — probably more of a mess than Erroll realized when he agreed to take the job. Three days after he started, a big cheating scandal erupted. Teachers had falsified test scores to improve their personal and school rankings. It was Erroll’s job to fix it. It was bad, and heads rolled.

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It was a huge story in education, and it’s still not totally resolved. Atlanta was extremely fortunate to have someone of Davis’ caliber arrive on the scene and take the decisive action he did. Now they’re searching for his successor, and the local controversy is that the mayor wants to pay the new superintendent $600,000, double the current salary. I can assure you Davis isn’t serving for the money. (The current compensation for his old job at Alliant Energy is more than $5 million.)

After the chance spotting at the parade, I emailed Erroll and asked him what his future plans are. He replied that he plans to retire from the Atlanta job in the first quarter of 2014. He told me he will be back in Madison in April of next year to speak at the Madison Civics Club. His topic: “It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

I asked him if he has any other plans to return to Madison. He replied noncommittally: “I do miss the people of Wisconsin, but not the weather. See you after the winter!”

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