Sunday, July 03, 2011

Detroit-Area Residents Have Bitter Memories Of The Late Mat-Su School Superintendent Kenneth Burnley; Alaskans Laud His Performance

Residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were taken by surprise at the sudden death of 69-year-old Mat-Su Borough Schools Superintendent Kenneth Stephen Burnley on Saturday July 2nd, 2011. He was recovering from double knee replacement surgery at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage when he suddenly became ill. Burnley is survived by his wife, Eileen, and two children. The public is invited to a celebration of his life at 11 a.m. on Friday July 8th at Teeland Middle School. The most detailed media story is provided by the Mat-Su Frontiersman. The Anchorage Daily News has also weighed in with an original story.

Update July 8th: Over 500 people showed up at the July 8th memorial service for Dr. Burnley held at Teeland Middle School in Wasilla. ADN gallery of 16 photos available HERE.

Deena Paramo, MSBSD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, becomes Acting Superintendent pending selection of a permanent replacement.

The predominant reaction was best summed up by Mat-Su School Board President Michael Dunleavy. “We don’t know all the facts yet,” Dunleavy said. “We’re all just trying to take it in and support the family the best we can. It’s going to be a loss not just for the state, but for the nation. He made huge impacts in Detroit, Colorado Springs, Fairbanks and here. I’ve been in education for 28 years as a principal, a teacher and as a superintendent, and I probably learned more from him this past year than I probably learned in all those years combined.”

During his Mat-Su tenure, Dr. Burnley negotiated contracts with four unions with the help of a mediator and community input. He invited unions to his weekly meetings with top staff. He brought in an expert who examined school buses and found safety issues that needed to be addressed. He directed that the district's home-school center be expanded to better serve the many Mat-Su children who are taught by their parents. His primary focus was student achievement, starting a new math program to help kids who were falling behind, and pushing for online classes so students who had failed a class could retake it at their own pace.

Dr. Burnley's complete career resume is posted HERE. Looking further back, he served as the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Superintendent from 1981-1987. He received an excellent rating each year for his performance, commissioned an efficiency and effectiveness study and used the results to reorganize the school district, built a strong leadership and management team recruited from around the country, and left the school district performing at the 84th percentile.

During his tenure as Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent from 1987 to 2000, Dr. Burnley received an excellent rating each year for his performance and left the school district performing at the 84th percentile. It was during this tenure that he was named National Superintendent of the Year in 1993. Public comments to the story indicate most locals were favorably impressed with his record at Colorado Springs.

Because Kenneth Burnley previously served as the CEO of Detroit Public Schools from 2000-2005, the Detroit media found his death newsworthy. According to the Detroit News, Burnley was hired in Detroit in 2000 as part of a state takeover plan of Detroit schools. Under his direction, reading scores improved, parent involvement increased, and new schools were built in the troubled school district, one of the nation's largest. Despite this, Burnley became a frequent target of criticism by teachers and parents angry over the state takeover, and the Detroit School Board chose not to renew his contract in 2005. This criticism re-surfaced in the comments section of the Detroit Free Press. Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a former Detroit schools spokesman who worked with Burnley from 2003 to 2005, said he was shocked to hear about Burnley's death because he was so athletic. He claimed that Burnley was never able to use his credibility as a Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools graduate to his advantage in the job, and noted that Burnley dealt with issues including a budget deficit and student exodus during his tenure. But the story kicked open a hornet's nest in the comments section; some Detroit-area residents have unfavorable memories of Burnley's tenure. Two major irritants cited were Campus Martius and Learning Village:

amazenbrazen 5:31 AM on July 3, 2011:
Although he did Detroit & our children wrong, may he rest in peace. Prayers go out to his family.

amazenbrazen 9:08 PM on July 3, 2011:
DPS had a $90 million surplus; he ate through that. contracted out food service, construction trades jobs to Service Masters. Put dps in a $100 million plus deficit. Closed schools. Stole $3 Million in Artwork "he" purchased for his Office. Sold the building dps OWNED to RENT 5 bldgs for Adm. Services. Bobb finished dps off. Sellouts sold their own souls. Closed GOOD Schools. Burnley even built a school ON top radioactive hazardous waste ground. . .darn the kids health. He had No character

teachnow 6:02 AM on July 3, 2011:
Arguably one of the worst, most incompetent Superintendent in DPS history. He set DPS on its road to economic disaster. His ineptitude in business and budgetary matters is superseded only by that of Mr. Robert Bobb.

May rest in peace but pay for his sins

gearheaded 7:08 AM on July 3, 2011:
That this guy got a job says a lot about Alaska.

amazenbrazen 8:27 PM on July 3, 2011:
Where's that $3 Million in Artwork he bought from Sherry Washington? It came up missing after Burnley's Departure...now Shery, her sister and the gang are frying alone. Minus ARTWORK! Sheesh. Burnley was a freaking crook.

Prior to his Mat-Su appointment, the Mat-Su School Board grilled Burnley thoroughly about his Detroit tenure. Burnley ended up with no actions against him and he was mostly absolved of all the stuff he was accused of. Burnley told the board that he had to shutter 71 schools and lay off 4,400 people, the bus system was badly broken, the district had $1.5 billion in bonds it had sold but hadn’t done anything with, and the computer system was so badly broken there were huge problems every payday. Despite those challenges, reading scores improved, parent involvement increased, and new schools were built during his Detroit tenure. Ultimately, the Mat-Su Board decided to judge him on his entire employment record, and he was hired effective July 10th, 2010.

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