RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — There were perhaps one or two moments in his Richland 2 career when Robert E. “Bob” Davis didn’t make the correct calculation.
Davis, the math whiz and chief numbers guy for the district, recalls the time he and former superintendent Steve Hefner presented a teacher pay-for-performance proposal to board members.
The questions from the board moved from chilly to downright frigid, and the audience mood was worse. Davis realized then that he had entered a no-fly zone and needed to extricate himself quickly.
“It was the old ‘Get the hell out of Dodge’ moment,” Davis chuckled in a recent interview. Within a few moments, Davis recommended that he and Hefner return the plan to the drawing board. (Later, the district adopted an incentive to reward teachers who achieve National Board Certification.)
Davis, 62, retired officially June 30 as Richland 2’s chief financial officer, a position he held for 15 years. But in the wake of Richland 2 superintendent Katie Brochu’s abrupt resignation last month, Davis was back in his office last week, on a month-to-month contract.
Running a tight ship
Davis will be there to assist interim schools chief Debbie Hamm, providing a reassuring presence in a district that has faced huge growth and demographic changes as well as a tumultuous Brochu tenure. The CFO job is a role that suits his temperament and background.
“Finding someone to replace Bob is going to be a challenge,” said Mike Montgomery, a Columbia lawyer who served on the seven-member school board from 1996-2004. “You can never forget that in the Naval Reserve he is ‘Admiral Davis.’ That connotes some leadership skills that are not easy to acquire and not easy to replace.”
Actually, Davis retired as a captain, but admiral suits him well. In his office, a framed caricature of Davis, presented by the Columbia Capital Rotary Club, shows him as a six-handed sea captain because of his ability to juggle many tasks at once.
Following his graduation from the University of South Carolina, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship, Davis spent five years on active duty in the Navy, serving on a fast-attack submarine in the Mediterranean. He served another 25 years in the U.S. Naval Reserves, including an eight-month active-duty stint overseas in 1991 as commander of a reserve unit in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
He clearly knows how to run a tight ship. His no-nonsense approach, leavened by an unruffled courtliness, was honed in years of corporate auditing positions at SCE&G and SCANA and a stop at the S.C. Department of Education, where he was senior executive assistant of the business division.
At Richland 2, Davis said he offers opinions and expertise when asked but learned not to butt in unannounced, taking a lesson from a former private-sector boss who once made a point of thanking him for his “unsolicited advice.”
Hefner, now superintendent of Lexington-Richland 5, said Davis’ integrity, along with his ability to read financial data and develop long-range strategies, almost qualifies him for “superhuman status.”
“He can take what for most of us is a lot of complex information – he can synthesize that information and then share it in a manner that is understandable to the rest of us,” Hefner said. “It is an extraordinary gift.”
Ed Carlon, chief operations officer and director of budget services in neighboring Richland 1, said Davis’ top-drawer reputation is known from Greenville to Charleston.
“I think he’s one of the best in the state, and he is always willing to help anyone who gives him a call,” Carlon said. “His knowledge base is tremendous. He follows the legislation that is being passed, and he is in the front of trying to get new legislation passed in how the schools are funded.”
Davis and Carlon are part of a working group examining public school funding and reforms to Act 388, which Davis characterizes as a “horrible piece of legislation” that has unbalanced the state budget and created nightmare scenarios for school districts.
That 2006 legislation provided property tax relief to homeowners in exchange for raising the state sales tax and placing more burden on businesses. But it also restricted the ability of school districts to fund initiatives and exacerbated inequities among rich and poor districts in the state.
“I told some legislators this: that in the history of the state of South Carolina, Act 388 is the worst mistake we have made,” Davis said. “The only one that is comparable is when South Carolina decided to fire on Fort Sumter.”
An Olympia childhood
Davis is steeped in an understanding of South Carolina’s history, having grown up in Columbia’s Olympia community, the son of textile workers who instilled in him the importance of good character and a solid reputation.
His father, the late Ernest Edward Davis, who died while Davis was in college, worked in the card room of the Granby Mill. His late mother, Eugenia Riley Davis, was a weaver in the Olympia mill. She lived to 91.
“Mom could talk to the town drunk and the state senator,” he recalled. Eugenia Davis made sure both of her sons, Bob and his older brother, Francis, obtained college educations. Both majored in accounting, with Davis earning a double degree in accounting and finance from USC, as well as a masters degree in business administration from Central Michigan University.
As a teenager, Davis peddled hotdogs at USC games (an avid Gamecock fan, he now owns a Cockaboose outside the stadium) and worked summers on a farm owned by his Olympia High School football coach, George Martin.
“I learned pretty quickly I did not want to work on the farm,” Davis said. “If you stack hay on a hot August day in South Carolina, you want to get a college degree.”
Davis developed an affinity for math at Olympia High, guided by one teacher, the late Dorothy Smith, who taught him all four years of high school.
In his senior year, he recalled, Smith needed four students to teach a class on the most difficult math, algebra 3 and trigonometry. He rounded up three buddies to share the class, although by mid-year, only he and one other boy remained.
‘Things to Worry About Now’
Davis brought his lifelong affinity for numbers to Richland 2 in January 1998. Eighteen months later, voters rejected a school bond referendum by a margin of 139 votes.
In three successive ballot initiatives, in 2000, 2004 and 2008, Davis said he and other Richland 2 advocates made sure the community understood what was at stake. All three passed.
It was difficult at the height of the 2008 recession, but Davis was persuaded that long-term savings would be substantial if voters backed the $306 million bond referendum.
“You make your pitch to the everyday citizen,” he said. “In that recession, I understood the tough sell. But I wanted to beat (other school districts) out the door and lock in these contractors.”
He is proud that during his 15 years, 20 schools were constructed to house a student population that doubled during his time as CFO. Davis has had his share of critics, tax watchdogs who questioned the district’s spending, right down to the terra cotta tiles he champions over less expensive floor tiles.
“Our community has largely agreed that we want quality facilities,” Davis said.
He keeps a whiteboard in his office with the heading “TTWAN,” “Things to Worry about Now,” and said he tries to avoid getting distracted by political controversies of the moment. That included the dissension that bubbled during Brochu’s three-year tenure.
“My job is to keep us out of (financial) trouble,” Davis said. “Our honesty and integrity are priceless. If we lose that, we are toast.”
For now, Davis is enjoying the perks of a long career that has yet to quite conclude: House and Senate resolutions recognizing his June 30 retirement and his long years of service to South Carolina; Richland 2 festivities and accolades; a pound cake delivered to his office by school board member Melinda Anderson.
Even when Davis finally retires from Richland 2, he expects to stay in the education game, although he also hopes to indulge his love of history and travel with Sally, his wife of 24 years.
Already, he has been asked if he would be available to consult with financially struggling school districts, particularly those predominantly poor and minority systems in the state’s Pee Dee region highlighted in the documentary “Corridor of Shame.”
“I need a reason to get up in the morning, to stay involved.”
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.