Palm Beach County School Superintendent Michael Burke visited the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board on Monday, May 9 to lead an overview of his first year on the job.
“I think it’s important to talk about the last year,” Board Chair Dr. Bill Thallemer said. “We always focus on the fireworks, but I think it’s important to share some good news. Let’s be a little more positive. Let’s start to think about the great things we can do and not what we’ve been through.”
When Burke stepped up to the microphone, he was all smiles at finally making it to one of the meetings in person.
“I’ve been on the job now almost 10 months, but I’ve been with the district almost 25 years, most of that time as chief financial officer,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it and honored to lead our school district. My first day on the job, School Board Member Marcia Andrews said, ‘You’ve got to get out to Royal Palm Beach. They are a model with their education committee.’”
Burke expressed satisfaction at the overall conditions and attitudes of students and teachers who returned to school in-person this year, noting how being out for a year took its toll both academically and emotionally.
“We have a mental health professional in every school, and they are busier than ever,” Burke said. “We increased the size of our school police department. We had some benefit of federal funds, and the American Rescue Plan allowed us to develop student academic support plans.”
Burke spoke of pay increases to help retain teachers and staff, and virtual tutoring available to students. The online program has already been utilized by more than 9,000 students.
“One of the things I’m working on right now is developing a strategic plan for the district,” he said. “The school board gave us a good start on this because they developed a new mission statement to educate, affirm and inspire each student. I believe affirm comes first. Make sure they feel safe, and their basic needs are met, and that aligns with the things we are doing for mental health and social-emotional work. Inspire really comes second. They get self-motivated to some extent. I want to be part of a conscious effort to do more to inspire students.”
Burke also shared the need for financial literacy training for youth. Both recent legislation and parental feedback support this direction.
“I wanted to thank you tonight in person for the collaboration and for making yourselves available to me,” Burke said. “If you see something in the community you’re concerned about, or just looking out to suggest that I might want to pay attention to something, I’d really appreciate it.”
Board Member Jennifer Sullivan followed up with concerns about HB 7, a new law that restricts how concepts of race are taught in Florida schools, and other legislative trends coming out of Tallahassee, including their effect on school district partners, such as the cultural council.
Burke said he is not sure exactly how the new law will be implemented.
“We’ve submitted a bunch of questions, along with other districts, and they said they don’t have any answers yet. I don’t expect a lot of guidance soon. We are forced locally to figure this out. We are looking through materials now, and we might have to put those aside,” Burke said. “As far as our partners, I don’t think there should be a lot of change. We’ve got to be careful with K-3. I can get some help though. When you actually read the bills, it seems like a limited amount of materials. Anything related to slavery is not off the table. But if we get into systems that help white people retain power, that is different. My request would be to send those groups our way.”
Burke also mentioned that the district is hiring for essentially all positions, from bus drivers to ESE teachers. He was also pleased with the hiring of School Police Chief Sarah Mooney. While her department is also short on officers, they are contracting with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to fill the gaps.
Central Region Superintendent Valerie Zuloaga-Haines also spoke at the meeting. She brought up statistics on student acceptance into Florida’s elite universities.
“If you look at the University of Florida, students are required to have a minimum of 4.4 to 4.6 GPA. Students have to take accelerated courses, Advanced Placement and AICE courses just to be considered,” she said. “That work does not start in high school. It doesn’t even start in middle school. It starts in elementary school.”
Haines noted the success off accelerated math programs in Royal Palm Beach schools. She also announced that Crestwood Middle School was recently approved as a pre-AICE program.
Andrews also attended the meeting and spoke, focusing on the importance of parent involvement and how schools are helping students mentally by helping them physically. “Part of our strategic plan is getting the kids outside,” she said. “You can do fun things in life and not be looking at a computer screen. I’m not talking about just PE. We know that mental health, emotional and social — we’ve been locked down, they can’t communicate well. We are trying to do more restorative programs. People say there are more fights than ever before, that’s why we need to get them outside.”