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Lee County schools superintendent Burke's tenure not without its problems

Mar. 24, 2013
Lee County Superintendent Joseph Burke.
Lee County Superintendent Joseph Burke.


In the nearly two years that Joseph Burke has served as Lee County schools superintendent, he’s taken heat over his handling of taxpayer money, his communication skills and his managerial style.

The majority of the allegations against Burke from the department of education’s inspector general have stemmed from his movement of federal and state grant dollars.

In November 2011, Burke moved about $1.65 million in federal grant dollars to a central account. The money came from federal entitlement and special education grants and was returned to their original accounts in March 2012.

School board member Mary Fischer said the issue has been handled.

In a letter dated July 10, 2012 from Linda Champion, DOE’s deputy commissioner of finance and operations, she noted the district moved back the $1.65 million to the appropriate programs and recommended next time the district consult DOE about project changes.

“What we were trying to do was pull all of the money into a central account to look at the expenditures and make sure we were meeting the new requirements we were facing with (new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 2.0),” Burke said. “The state Board of Education had changed a lot of rules mid-year, in fact in December that year and we wanted to make sure if there was a way we could strategically utilize some of the grant dollars to help the district that we would try to do that.”

Burke said at no time was the money moved into the general fund and called the allegation that it was absurd.

The state also found an issue with an increase in expenses for the district’s reorganization from 2011-12 totaling $298,000, but with about $5,000 in funds coming from the general fund and the rest from grants for “top level administrators”.

In documents obtained by the News-Press, Chief Administrative Officer Alberto Rodriguez and Grants & Program Development Director Jeff McCullers wrote new positions were created in certain federal programs. “However, these new positions were created to carry out the missions and required activities of those grant programs, and represent a reasonable, customary and necessary use of grant funds.’

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The five assistant director and director positions were all approved by a 5-0 school board vote at various times during the 2011-12 school year.

Burke has largely been supported by board members Fischer, Tom Scott and Don Armstrong. Board member Jeanne Dozier and then board member Jane Kuckel were critical. Cathleen Morgan, who was elected to fill Kuckel’s seat after she opted not to run again, asked for an investigation into Burke recently.

Some other problems outlined by Kuckel and Dozier:

Hiring: Burke, having known district executive Deedara Hicks, should have known about her work-related problems at the state education department. A supervisor wrote a letter to Florida Atlantic University about how Hicks was a poor communicator, not following through on goals and had excessive absences. That was in May 2011, and Hicks started with the Lee district in July 2011.

“She’s exhibited the same characteristics and behavior here, like not showing up for meetings, frequent absences,” Kuckel said.

Burke said neither he nor Hicks were aware of the letter until it emerged earlier this month.

“How it got constructed and who it came from is a big mystery to me,” Burke said. “The person who signed the letter was not her direct supervisor and, as far as I know, had no personal knowledge of her work. At the time she was there and resigned from Florida Atlantic, she did not know that was in her file.”

Burke said following Hicks’ resignation, DOE attempted to hire her for a job, however due to an emergency medical surgery in May 2011, she wasn’t able to finish the year. DOE did however make accommodations to extend her medical insurance into June.

Communication: Both said the school board was in the dark about $500,000 in training costs that came up recently on the consent agenda.

“I bet I talked to (former schools superintendent) Jim Browder four or five times a week … Jim would call us and says what do you think about it,“ Kuckel said. “When Dr. Burke first came on, I’d say ‘Let me know this, let me know that’ and he just wouldn’t do it.” “All these things he’s done clandestinely.”

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Board member Fischer said if there’s one area that needs to improve it’s communication but not just between the superintendent and the board, but at every level in the district.

Fischer said Burke’s relationship with school board members is pretty obvious depending on each board member.

“I think Dr. Burke’s leadership style is he’s very methodical, thoughtful and doesn’t act on impulse,” Fischer said. “I would call it fairly good depending on where you’re panning your camera. I think beyond that, I would want to withhold comment.”

She doesn’t expect the lack of communication to continue. Fischer also pointed to the recent spending on training in Orlando. The board was forced to vote, 3-2, for the measure in order to make sure the district met the deadline of attending the conference.

“We did agree at that board meeting that that wouldn’t happen again, that we would have information ahead of time and have time to be briefed and workshopped in order to make an informed decision,” Fischer said.

Burke said he sent a memo to board members about the training a week before the meeting. Often times he has to make the decision of which items to brief board members on in memos or at the briefing meetings. He’s also been criticized by board members for having briefing meetings that are too long, he said.

“I always think that you can improve on communication,” he said. “Personally, it's something that I could work on and I feel as though that’s an issue that is an appropriate growth area for me as a superintendent.”

Typically he has standing weekly meetings with Morgan, Scott and Fischer, Burke said, noting he talks to Armstrong “pretty much every day on one thing or another“ and Dozier a “little less regular."

Burke said part of the criticism may come from his management style, which is much different than Browder’s. He said he’s more of a delegator and someone who likes to deliberate on decisions for awhile.

Performance: Kuckel also found issue in how Lee schools have ranked in the time Burke has been superintendent.

“Look at the schools,” she said. “Prior to him coming this was an A district and the year after he came it dropped to a B.”

But Burke said his critics have failed to mention the district’s graduation rate increased this year, the dropout rate went down and the number of A and B high schools is highest the district has had in the history of school grades. Ninety-four percent of Lee high schools earned an A or B grade last year. The district also received a $45 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant.

“There are some real bright points that get overlooked,” he said.

Connect with these reporters: @AshASmithNews and @SteveMcQuilkin

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