D-11 looks for leadership as top brass jump ship 

Who can blame Ken Burnley for bailing out of his job of 13 years as superintendent of District 11, the city's largest school district? By taking the job as superintendent of the Detroit public school system, Burnley is escaping:

A school system whose teachers issued a vote of "no confidence" in him 11 years ago when he accepted performance bonuses for himself after instituting wage cuts and freezes for teachers. They've never reversed their position.

A school district whose voters haven't passed a mil levy increase since 1969, and only one bond election since 1971.

A school district with a budget deficit of $5 million this year and the possibility of a $12 million deficit next year, necessitating massive academic and administrative cutbacks, and possibly controversial school closures.

Increased critical scrutiny from citizen and business groups. Burnley recently got hammered by teacher and citizens' surveys, and has given a low approval rating due to widespread public mistrust of his administration's policies, operations and spending priorities.

Citing a major credibility gap, a coalition of the community's major business organizations recently ordered an independent financial and administrative audit of D-11.

And, by going to Detroit, Burnley will be the fifth highest paid superintendent in the United States. But it's not exactly going to be a cakewalk for him.

Nails for lunch

The Detroit school system is the nation's ninth largest, with 167,000 students in 263 schools and a budget of $1.2 billion. With a dropout rate of 50 percent and a truancy rate of 33 percent, Detroit newspapers call it "possibly the worse school system in the U.S."

Burnley may be unpopular among D-11 teachers, but in Detroit, with all but several dozen of the district's 22,000 employees members of a union in a union stronghold, Burnley will be be jumping from the frying pan into a bonfire.

"We're not talking about wimpy Western unions," said Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki, a reporter with the Detroit Free Press. "We're talking about 17 eat-nails-for-lunch, Rust Belt unions."

Detroit's school system has a $60 to $70 million deficit, in large part because debate continues on what to do with a $1.5 billion bond issue passed by voters in 1994. Performance across the system is so uniformly dismal that in March of 1999 the Michigan legislature replaced the elected school board with a reform board appointed by the governor and Detroit mayor.

A word from the corporate sponsor

Who's going to be left to pick up the pieces in Colorado Springs?

Not Bob Moore, D-11's chief financial officer. Burnely is taking Moore with him to Detroit as his second in command.

"I'm thrilled to be able to go with Dr. Burnley," said Moore. "I'd rather work for him than anyone on this planet. It's a fantastic opportunity."

And not John Bushey, D-11's director of school leadership and self-proclaimed "Coke Dude." Bushey, who along with Moore masterminded D-11's corporate agreement with Coca-Cola Corporation several years ago, has accepted a job as principal of a K-12 public school in Celebration, Florida. Celebration is a planned community owned by the Disney Corporation, and the school Bushey will oversee is sponsored by Disney, Apple computers, Stetson and Auburn Universities.

That leaves Vera Dawson, D-11's deputy superintendent for instruction. The only problem is that two months ago Dawson resigned her $108,928 a year job and plans to take a job in Denver, where she lives.

The resignation came amid speculation of her poor relationship with Burnley, but Dawson declined to comment on her decision to leave, other than it was for "personal reasons."

School board members refuse to identify potential candidates to replace Burnley during what is sure to be a difficult transition for the district.

But a groundswell of support appears to be growing among district teachers and principals for Dawson as interim superintendent. A letter urging her selection was recently signed by 50 of the 54 principals in D-11.

In awe of Dawson

According to Brenda La Brasse, principal of Holmes Middle School and president of the Colorado Springs Principals Association, support for Dawson is strong among D-11 principals.

"She puts an emphasis on K-12 literacy, she has a comprehensive understanding of district instruction, and she has a background of involvement in education at the state level," she said. "[Dawson has] won the respect of administrators, principals and teachers and we feel she could win over the public at large."

Palmer High School English teacher Steve Kern agrees.

"She's provided some much-needed focus by keeping the emphasis on instruction and putting staff development on the district front burner," he said.

Coronado English teacher Janie Ganstine agrees.

"There's a widespread feeling that in recent years we've moved away from instruction into technology," she said, "and Vera gained our respect by asking some very hard questions about how technology serves instruction, instead of instruction serving technology.

"Vera doesn't come across as a top-down authority figure," she added. "She knows the curriculum and listens to the teachers' needs."

Dawson said she's flattered by the growing support for her candidacy, but hasn't decided whether to apply for the post.

"Turmoil of the kind this district is going through is both a crisis and an opportunity to move in fresh directions," she said.

This week the district announced the process by which a one-year interim superintendent will be chosen.

Applications will be accepted through June 2, with candidates screened by the school board in executive session on June 5-6. The board will interview three to six finalists in public sessions by June 16 and announce their final selection by June 30.


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