Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke may reconsider his decision to retire early.
In a statement released Wednesday, a district spokeswoman said the superintendent’s decision depends on the results of critical medical tests set for this month.
“Once those results are in, he will be able to more confidently say whether or not he will have to end his term before June 30th or be able to work beyond the June 30th date, potentially fulfilling more or all his original contract,” district spokeswoman Amity Chandler wrote.
Burke announced on March 25 that he would retire in June — about a year before the July 2014 end date on his contract — because of medical reasons.
His announcement came amid months of controversy over whether he acted appropriately in suspending an investigation into a top administrator. That issue, and another involving his choice to spend grant money on administrators instead of students or classrooms, prompted the state to ask the board to investigate him.
In a 3-2 vote during a special meeting Tuesday, the board declined to do so, and decided to instead defer the investigation to the Department of Education’s inspector general.
Board members were split in their reaction to the statement sent on Burke’s behalf, which several of them learned of through the media. Some said it’s best for him to stick to his original plan to leave early. Others said his remaining as superintendent could benefit the district, but he needs to decide soon what he plans to do.
“I think if he’s going to stay, he’s going to have to come to that decision rather quickly because it’s the not knowing who the leader’s going to be that’s the problem,” board member Tom Scott said, adding that he believes the board should begin discussing the replacement process at its April 16 meeting.
Fellow board member Jeanne Dozier, who has voted in favor of investigating Burke and voted against hiring him, said there’s no rush to find a replacement. She said if Burke decides to stay, everyone will “get along fine” as long as he abides by policy, ensures that everyone else does the same, and moves the district past its recent controversy.
“He needs to calm everything down,” Dozier said. “He needs to make sure that the fear and the intimidation that exists in the district now is stopped immediately.”
But board member Cathleen Morgan, who also wanted Burke investigated, said he needs to hold to his early retirement plan and allow the district to move on. She said she is disappointed that he’s waffling on whether to leave.
“I thought we were going to be looking forward,” Morgan said. “I thought a decision had been made that he was retiring and that we were now in a position as a board and district to begin planning for the next superintendent. If he is equivocating, then we’re not moving forward. We’re stuck.”
Former board member Jane Kuckel, who has been critical of Burke and previously called for investigations into his actions, echoed her comments.
“This is not the kind of organization where you want to start playing games with an elected board or staff,” she said. “This is serious business. We have an educational program to put forth and staff members to be concerned about, and I just think that’s totally out of line.”
On Tuesday, about 15 community members spoke in support of the superintendent. Among them was Joseph D’Alessandro, former state attorney for Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit, who said the board made a good decision in hiring Burke.
“You were right in your judgment,” he told the board. “Stick with your judgment and don’t beat him into the ground.”
Other speakers urged Burke to stay, saying the community is behind him. On Wednesday, the superintendent said through Chandler that he was overwhelmed by the show of support, but the only factor in his decision of whether to stay or go is what’s in his family’s best interests.
He declined to comment further.