New Lee superintendent accused of violating Sunshine Law in Monroe County

Joseph Burke; Superintendent; Lee County Schools on NewsMakers 6-26-11

Joseph Burke; Superintendent; Lee County Schools on NewsMakers 6-26-11

Joseph Burke will take the reins at Lee County School District next week.

But he is not leaving his post as the head of the Monroe County School District without some controversy.

At issue is whether or not Burke violated the Sunshine Law. Burke has publicly characterized the issue as a misunderstanding and has denied wrongdoing.

“I think it is going to get totally resolved,” he said. “I think it was a misunderstanding with the State Attorney’s Office.”

Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson said it appears the law was violated.

Wilson said he was approached by the Monroe County School Board Chairman John Dick, Monroe County Internal Auditor Ken Gentile and Stuart Kessler, chairman of the district’s Audit and Finance committee about whether Burke and Leon Fowler, who was then-president of the United Teachers of Monroe — the district’s teacher’s union — violated Sunshine Law by having private contract negotiations.

The Monroe County School District created an internal auditor and a citizen’s Audit and Finance Committee after Superintendent Randy Acevedo was ousted from his position. A jury convicted Acevedo in August 2009 for trying to cover up the theft of school funds by his wife, Monique, a former adult education coordinator.

“Kessler got wind of what he believed were contract negotiations between Burke and the head of the teacher’s union on May 10. On May 11, Kessler starts to send emails to the superintendent and the school board about his concernes about contract negotiations,” Wilson said. “But his emails were falling on deaf ears. The superintendent continued to negotiate and the school board wasn’t taking any action.”

According to the Keys’ local newspaper The Key Noter, the pair discussed three furlough days for teachers in the coming academic year, which would save about $705,000 in salary expenses.

Wilson reviewed the memorandum of understanding developed by Burke and Fowler and compared it to a letter of understanding, which was signed by the district and the union at a meeting on June 3.

“They weren’t precisely the same, but they were similar. There were some changes, just around the edges,” Wilson said.

In his June 10 opinion, which was sent to Dick, Gentile and Kessler, Wilson writes, “The inevitable appearance is that the substantive terms of the agreement were reached in private ‘conversations’ and then ratified, largely unchained, at the June 3 meeting. If this constitutes compliance with the Sunshine Law, (it) does so in only the barest, most grudging way.”

Wilson’s opinion is that a “curative meeting” at which the issues can be debated and public input could be received should be held as soon as possible.

“My advice was, if you want to ensure this will not come undone later by some party challenging it, you should hold a meeting,” he said.

That meeting was held Wednesday afternoon in the Monroe County School Board Chambers. Burke said he was not at the meeting, and did not know what happened.

Wilson said his role in the matter is done, provided the district holds the meeting and doesn’t repeat the problem.

“Whatever the negotiations are, they need to be done in an open meeting,” he said.

Burke is set to be sworn in as Lee County’s new superintendent at 9 a.m. Friday, July 1, in the Lee County Public Education Center in Fort Myers. The Lee County School Board voted earlier this month to give him a three-year contract.

Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.

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