After weeks of controversy in the Lee County School District, Superintendent Joseph Burke said Monday he plans to retire in June, about a year before his contract is up.
In a memo sent to school board members, the superintendent cited family and personal health issues as the reason for his decision. He declined to comment further. But several board members said they believed the turmoil in the district played at least a partial role.
"How long would you take it before you just finally said, ‘I don’t need this; life’s too short?’ It’s just human nature," board member Don Armstrong said. "After a while you’re just done with it."
The superintendent has been under fire for suspending an investigation into a top administrator, transferring grant funds without board approval and spending grant money on administrators instead of on students. In the last few weeks, board members sparred over whether to investigate Burke for those allegations, which the inspector general asked them to respond to last month.
The board remained at odds Monday after Burke announced he would retire, with some saying they’re sorry to see him go and others saying it’s in the district’s best interests. Armstrong, who along with board members Tom Scott and Mary Fischer has been supportive of Burke, said he was disappointed to read the memo. He said fellow board member Jeanne Dozier was at least partly responsible for the early departure.
Dozier had led calls for the board to investigate Burke, and stood by that move on Monday. She said Burke’s decision to suspend a district investigation into administrator Deedara Hicks, who was suspected of being intoxicated at work, has created a double standard and a climate of fear in the district.
"If any other board members are pointing fingers at me, they’ve got three fingers that are pointing right back at them," Dozier said. "The state would not be wanting to investigate this if there was not something there and if they did not have substantial evidence to come forward."
Armstrong said Burke brought the district to "a new level" in his year and a half as superintendent, citing his work investigating how Title 3 money was spent. Fischer agreed, pointing to Burke’s leadership in implementing a new evaluation system and helping secure a teacher incentive fund grant.
"I am very sorry to see him go because I think he really has a lot of knowledge and he has a heart for the students that we are educating," she said. "And I think that that’s very important in this business, where the students are not only our customer but our workers and our finished product."
But Burke’s tenure was not without problems. Before the inspector general wrote to board members, questions had been raised about his communication with the district and the way he handled finances. Former board member Jane Kuckel pointed to those issues in a memo sent to the board more than a year ago, in which she asked that he be investigated. That measure failed.
"It seems like there’s been a lot of controversy around him since he’s been here," Dozier said on Monday. She was the lone board member to vote against hiring him in May 2011.
The superintendent’s performance came up again in September, when Kuckel wrote a series of memos accusing him of failing to do his job and violating board policy. Earlier this month, after receiving the inspector general’s letter, the board voted 3-2 to respond to it with documents showing it already investigated the three areas of concern. Dozier and Morgan dissented.
Morgan, who replaced Kuckel in November, declined to comment Monday on whether she thought Burke did a good job in his time leading Lee County schools.
Donna Mutzenard, executive director of the Island Coast chapter of the Florida Education Association, said she felt the district continued moving forward under Burke. But she said as more details came out in recent weeks, she began questioning whether employees were receiving equal treatment.
"I always have concerns about those issues being raised," Mutzenard said, adding that she had no firsthand knowledge of the situation. "My greatest concern is, is everybody being treated the same."
The board has not yet heard back from the inspector general, and Dozier said the fact Burke is retiring doesn’t mean the issue is over.
Dozier said employees have had to deal with a double standard that’s caused stress across the district. She said she’s heard from community members who say they’ve been behind her efforts.
Moving forward, the board needs to pick an interim superintendent who can get the district back on track, she said.
"We need to get somebody in there that can come in and start a healing process because right now we’ve got situations where people have been under an undue amount of stress," Dozier said.
The board will likely begin discussing the process to replace Burke during its April 2 meeting. Dozier said hiring a new superintendent could take six to nine months and an interim leader will be necessary.
Morgan indicated that she would favor using a national firm to conduct the search. She said she’s optimistic about the board’s shot at attracting a strong candidate, and feels that Burke made the best decision for himself and for the district.
"I just think that there’s been a lot of turmoil and a lot of confusion and concern and his decision to move on will alleviate some of that concern," Morgan said. "And it enables us to look forward instead of being caught up in the situation we’ve been in."