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Keeping up with Ken Burnley



It's been less than two years since Kenneth Burnley went home to Detroit to fix the nation's failing ninth-largest school system.

At the time, the sheer description of the state of Detroit's system was dismal beyond comprehension: dropout rates hovering around 40 percent, students with no textbooks, certified teachers in short supply, schools crumbling and the district hemorrhaging as federal money was disappearing as fast as students fled elsewhere.

Judging from recent news accounts, Burnley -- who ran the region's largest school district for 13 years before moving back to his hometown in July 2000 -- might have done better going to work for Enron.

In late November, Detroit's ABC affiliate WXYZ mounted a series of investigative pieces highlighting numerous cases of abuse, misuse and even theft of public funds under Burnley's watch. Among the station's findings, based on the district's audit reports:

Last May, Burnley's right-hand woman, LaVonne Sheffield, financed her wedding trip to Las Vegas courtesy of Detroit Schools taxpayers. Using her district-issued charge card, Sheffield -- whose title is, get this, the chief of academic accountability -- rang up $755 while getting hitched at the Forever Grand wedding chapel at the MGM Grand Hotel. Records also documented other Sheffield expenses, including flower arrangements, $845 worth of merchandise from an airline catalog and a $1,200 Founder's Society membership to the Detroit Institute of Art.

Meanwhile, Detroit Schools budget worker Walter Esaw used his district-issued credit card to rent the X-rated flick Sex The Hard Way at a hotel while he was traveling on "business."

The TV station didn't find anything as titillating to pin on Burnley himself, other than evidence of his extravagant tastes as witnessed by a $315 room at the Willard, a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., where Burnley also rang up $68 on a handful of phone calls.

In addition, ABC affiliate investigative reporter Steve Wilson detailed other district money that has been spent on flowers, trips, Easter baskets, take-home turkeys, even a $210 goldfish pond.

At one elementary school, auditors discovered nearly $20,000 worth of missing computer equipment, and staffers caught double-dipping and leaving school early for manicures and hair appointments.

Audit reports of other schools also showed cases of missing cash totaling $172,000, including athletic game receipts and lunch money.

As far as we can tell, no one's been fired. And in the wake of the ABC affiliate's aggressive reporting, in December Burnley -- while claiming the picture isn't nearly as bad as it looks and that the audits might not be entirely accurate -- announced plans to hire a new auditor.

"Improvements ... in the district are just tremendous and there are lots of things for you to go see and take a look at that we think are making a real difference," the television station quoted Burnley saying.

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with Colorado Springs? Thankfully, nothing. But it's interesting to compare the current malaise in Detroit Schools with the environment in which Burnley departed Colorado Springs less than two years ago.

Then, Burnley escaped a system whose teachers had issued a vote of "no confidence" for him a full 11 years before -- never reversed -- when he cut and froze their wages. He left just after getting hammered by teachers and citizens who expressed widespread mistrust of his policies, operations and spending priorities. And his departure came just after the city's major business organizations ordered an independent financial and administrative audit of District 11.

When he became CEO of his hometown district, Burnley enjoyed a brief honeymoon. He has claimed victories in developing marketing strategies to attract students and discourage dropout rates. One shining highlight has been his decision to form an all-city marching band, whose performance at the nationally televised Rose Bowl was stellar.

But, in a district where 80 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, plenty of activists are already disenchanted.

"I've got 40 kids in my class," teacher Heather Miller told the Independent this week. "At my elementary school ... there is no sidewalk access for students; they have to walk through the parking lot. I think we're not serving hot lunches because the building wasn't built to code. We have no gym, no art, no music, no library."

These types of woes are probably hard for Burnley to comprehend. After all, at a salary of $250,000 a year plus benefits, he is one of the highest paid public school superintendents in the country. The paucity of the little people must be so very difficult to grasp.


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