A “bridge” is a time, place or means of connection. It can also be a transition.
The annual Lee County Public School District’s State of Our Schools address Friday morning turned into a ceremonial bridge between the leadership of outgoing interim superintendent, Larry Tihen, and that of incoming superintendent, Joseph Burke.
Burke’s final negotiations with the Lee County School Board ended when the members of the School Board approved his 3-year contract Thursday evening. He is set to start in his new position July 1.
This was Burke’s first public event since the negotiations were finalized.
The acting superintendent, Tihen, delivered the annual State of Our Schools Address at the breakfast sponsored by the District, The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, and various community partners.
Tihen, who has been at the helm of the District since September when then superintendent James Browder resigned to accept a post at Edison State College, chose to vacate the position due to personal obligations.
With more than 30 years of experience within the Lee County Public Schools system, Tihen has seen the District’s many phases come and go.
“We’re changing in a lot of ways … but we’re also moving into new eras,” Tihen said during his presentation.
The theme for this year’s event, which was chosen about two months ago, was “A Bridge to the Future,” and the coincidence between it and reality was kismet, according to Marshall Bower, executive director for the Foundation.
“Stars aligned and there was Dr. Burke,” Bower said.
Burke said he is prepared to step into the lead role.
“I feel very comfortable coming in and trying to create a bridge,” Burke said.
Tihen’s address revealed some of what Burke may have to grapple with and celebrate within the coming years.
With 117 public schools, the District is one of the largest in Florida, and Tihen said it is also one of the highest achieving in the state.
All the schools in Lee County have received either “A,” “B,” or “C” grades from the Florida Department of Education, which makes it the only so-called “large district” in Florida to hold that distinction, according to Tihen.
The newly released third grade FCAT reading and math scores also exceeded state averages.
“Lee County is the highest performing large district in Florida in both areas,” Tihen said.
He credits the District’s standardized curriculum and textbooks as one of the contributing factors in student achievement. About 40 percent of Lee County students move between schools within the District, and stability is key to their success, according to Tihen.
“What we have tried to do is build a very flexible and powerful instructional program so that regardless of what group you fall into we can design our schools around our students.”
Bridging the gap between majority and minority achievement has led to meaningful gains in education equality, new numbers show.
According to the latest figures, there are about 82,000 students enrolled in K-12 schools in Lee County. Of those, 48.8 percent of students are White, 30.4 are Hispanic and 15.4 percent are Black. The remainder of the population is made up of students who are multi-racial, Asian and Native American.
Eight years ago, about 53 percent of minority students were performing at grade level. Now, that figure is 86 percent.
“All of our children are getting an equal opportunity to achieve. That’s what we want, and we’re darn proud of it,” Tihen said.
The theme of student success is one that Burke said he will be focused on during his time as superintendent.
“The district has done a lot of the good things that it needs to do … and we need to push it to the next level,” Burke said.
Economic constraints will not stand in the way of continued student achievement, according to Tihen and Burke.
“The cuts that we are going to sustain are serious, but I think we are going to be able to do it in a way that is still going to preserve all the programs,” Burke said.
Tihen shared that there was a $48 million reduction to the District’s budget of $1.4 billion budget, which he claimed is the largest shortfall in its history.
Lee County Public Schools, the largest employer in the county, has already had to reduce staff in order to stay within its means. Burke said there may be more lay-offs in the future, but he expects some employees will retire, resign or go on leave on their own.
“There are going to be some job reductions, but they are going to be strategic and there are not going to be too many,” Burke said.
Burke anticipates that Florida’s teacher merit-based pay law, which will come into effect the day he plans to begin as the head of the District, will not drastically affect the standards already in place within the Lee Schools.
“Teachers have always been accountable. We are going to be institutionalizing that in a more transparent way … it’s a requirement in the law. We are going to have to sit down and work it out with the teachers’ unions,” Burke said.
After the event, Burke was scheduled to meet with Greg Adkins, chief human resources officer at the Lee School District, to discuss just how to design a merit pay system that will both comply with state law and be as fair as possible to teachers.
“The teachers need to be involved in that process. We are going to be talking with them,” Burke said.
As for his move from Key West to Fort Myers, Burke anticipates it will be a smooth one. His wife, Judy Burke, has been house hunting in the area this week.