The Palm Beach Post | By Andrew Marra | October 19, 2021
It was two decades ago when a schools superintendent asked a young budget director named Mike Burke what his career ambitions were. His answer was as direct as it was surprising.
“I had a superintendent ask me, ‘What’s your goal?’” Burke recalled. “And I said I’d like to be superintendent. And they were a little taken aback.”
It was an audacious goal for anyone in the public school world, let alone a midlevel, 30-something budget expert with no experience as an educator.
But for the former finance major who fell into public education by happenstance, it made perfect sense. Why not, he figured, set your sights on the top job?
Some 20 years later, Burke stands at the helm of the nation’s 10th largest school district, the rare public school superintendent who did not ascend through the teacher and principal ranks.
Tapped in July as a placeholder leader while the school board searched for a permanent one, Burke quickly impressed with his steady hand during two raucous months of mask mandates, protests and spiking COVID-19 infections.
Board members have been so satisfied with Burke’s performance that on Oct. 6 they unanimously canceled plans for a national superintendent search, awarding him the permanent gig without considering other candidates.
Mike Burke supported by teachers, principals though he has no teaching experience
The decision, expected to be finalized Wednesday, was roundly applauded by the teachers union, the principals association and an advocacy group for Black students, a rare moment of accord in a year and a half of extraordinary tumult in the public school world.
But Burke says he recognizes he is an unusual leader in an unusual moment, as the county’s public schools emerge from what could be the most challenging stretch of the pandemic, in search of a new direction.
That direction will now be steered, chiefly, by a man who has never had a teaching job but could plausibly claim to understand the school district’s interworkings better than anyone in the 22,000-person organization’s employ.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the building who has a better understanding of both the business side of this district and the educational side,” School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said.
Burke’s ascendance is especially surprising considering he was never supposed to be in the education business. Raised in Pompano Beach, Burke studied finance at Florida State University and envisioned a career in banking.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the building who has a better understanding of both the business side of this district and the educational side,” School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said.SCHOOL BOARD CHAIRMAN FRANK BARBIERI
But after graduating in 1989 he had a job lined up in Southeast Bank’s commercial-lending training program when the program was suspended as the now-defunct bank collapsed under financial duress.
Searching for a backup plan, Burke opened a newspaper one day and saw a listing for a low-level budget analyst position in Broward County’s school district.
“I found the job in the paper and applied,” he said, “and once I got in there, I really liked it.”
Burke would remain in the world of school finance for the next three decades, moving to Palm Beach County’s school district as a budget manager in 1998 and ascending in 2006 to be the district’s chief financial officer.
Steering school district’s money through the Great Recession
In that role he quickly found himself managing the district’s finances through several painful budget cycles during the Great Recession.
As tax revenue plummeted, Burke called for a hiring freeze and deep budget cuts – even shutting off school district computers overnight to save electricity.
He was a chief architect of the school district’s plans for complying with and – at one point – intentionally not complying with the state’s class-size requirements.
He served for years as the district’s lead negotiator with employee unions, a role that put him in years of standoffs with teachers over salary raises but also taught him the legal and political nuances of employee relations in the district, the county’s largest employer.
“He’s always been difficult for us to work with, but that is his job and we acknowledge that,” said Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union. “I might disagree with him and we might go back and forth in negotiations, but I do respect him. I think he’s a steady hand and a professional, and people trust him.”
When Superintendent Wayne Gent resigned in 2015, Burke was one of several district officials who applied to replace him. But after a national search, board members decided to seriously consider only outside candidates, eventually hiring Superintendent Robert Avossa from Fulton County, Ga.
For four years, Burke served in the joint roles of chief financial officer and chief operating officer, presiding over not just the district’s financial affairs but also its non-academic operations, including its cafeterias, bus services and construction and maintenance operations.
The position amplified his understanding of district affairs, but it also led to his only significant public controversy – a massive school bus crisis in August 2015, caused by the botched installation of a new bus-routing software program.
The program was supposed to make school buses more efficient but created deeply flawed routes instead.
The result was the county’s largest school bus meltdown in recent memory, stranding thousands of students at bus stops and on campuses as buses routinely ran more than an hour late.
Burke did not directly manage the transportation department, and an investigation showed a subordinate concealed the depth of the problems from him before the school year started.
But Avossa nevertheless issued Burke a written reprimand and temporarily reduced his pay after a private investigation concluded he, then-Superintendent Wayne Gent and the district’s chief of support operations failed to anticipate and correct the problem.
School board member thrilled to have ‘a great calm personality‘
Quiet and understated, Burke is known for his calm demeanor, a trait that aided him in securing the appointment as interim superintendent when former Superintendent Donald Fennoy stepped down in July.
“Mike has such a great calm personality and everyone I’ve talked to is so thrilled having him,” board member Erica Whitfield said. “To have some of that calming force on our most difficult areas is huge.”
Burke is keenly aware that his lack of academic experience opens him to criticism. He says his solution has been to make extra efforts to pay attention to the concerns of the district’s academic experts.
Where previous superintendents often left the regular principal meetings after making opening remarks, Burke has been staying for the entire sessions, taking questions and hearing critiques from the campus leaders, many of whom have been deeply frustrated by staffing shortages.
“They are not holding back,” Burke said.
Now 54, Burke last year entered the state’s early-retirement program, requiring him to retire from the school district in June 2025.
That gives him, he hopes, four years in office to leave a mark on a district that aims to renew its focus on academics this year.
Burke said he wants to recreate some of the district’s most popular programs on more campuses, citing Bak Middle School’s arts programs and The Conservatory School @ North Palm Beach’s project-based learning program as examples.
He also wants to strengthen the district’s vocational programs, which teach students about professions that include auto repair, construction and nursing in addition to the regular curriculum, by infusing them with entrepreneurial lessons.
And he said he thinks the district’s schools need to make customer service a greater priority, as competition from charter schools and private voucher programs increases.
“I just want to make sure that every employee in our district has the message that we are guaranteed nothing,” he said. “We do not have the monopoly on education in Palm Beach County. And the experience of our students and parents and our community, and how they’re treated, is of upmost importance, that we prioritize it that everyone walks away a satisfied customer.”
He’s ready to give a try in the classroom
Also among Burke’s plans: some firsthand teaching experience.
With a persistent shortage of substitute teachers, Burke has directed most of his district’s academic staff to spend at least one day a month filling in on campuses as substitutes, an edict he is applying to himself.
He plans to teach his first substitute class this week, at a north county elementary school.
“It’ll be good for me to get that perspective,” he said.
Though he’s aspired to the superintendent position for decades, he said he had given up on the possibility in recent years and expected to retire as the district’s chief financial officer.
Now that the job is his, he said he intends to pour himself into it, while still aiming to “buy my suits half-price at Macy’s, if possible, and remain a man of the people,” as he quipped at a board meeting last week.
“I was really excited to get that chance,” he said, “and I’m trying to give it my all and work as hard as possible and just apply things I think I’ve learned over the years.”