School & District Management

New Detroit Chief Welcomes A Difficult Job

By Catherine Gewertz — May 17, 2000 3 min read

The new chief executive officer of the Detroit schools calls his job “one of the most difficult in America,” but says he took it because he believes the Motor City is on the verge of a rebirth that could restore the shine to the city and its schools.

Kenneth S. Burnley said last week he found Detroit’s vision of its future so compelling that he was willing to leave Colorado and a job he loves, as the superintendent of the Colorado Springs schools, to take on the daunting task of leading the 167,000-student Michigan district.

“It’s an exciting time for Detroit,” said Mr. Burnley, a Detroit native who attended the city’s public schools and went on to become a track star at the University of Michigan. “The mayor, the chairman of the school board, and the entire community have a vision. They want Detroit to be all it can be ... and they want the schools to play a big part in creating a major renaissance for the whole city. You don’t find that kind of vision, so clearly articulated, in many places.”

Mr. Burnley is set to take over as CEO this week as the contract of the current top administrator, David Adamany, expires. Mr. Adamany was named the interim CEO last year after the Michigan legislature handed broad control over the district to Mayor Dennis W. Archer. (“Detroit Board Names Interim Schools Chief,” May 19, 1999.)

To preserve his retirement benefits, Mr. Burnley must complete the school year in Colorado, so he expects to commute between the two states through June.

The Detroit school board chose Mr. Burnley unanimously at a May 4 meeting, ending a long and divisive search. The board majority, appointed by Mr. Archer, agreed on a new CEO in January, but Gov. John Engler’s sole appointee to the board vetoed that choice in January, forcing the search to begin anew.

Mr. Burnley, 58, has headed the 32,600-student Colorado Springs district since 1987. Six years into his tenure there, he was named the Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. He was the first African-American superintendent in Fairbanks, Alaska, and has also been a teacher and administrator in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Symbolic Choice

Mr. Burnley said he would begin moving on several fronts simultaneously: studying how efficiently the district functions and uses its money, building a “dialogue” with parents, and improving student achievement. By obtaining and disseminating test results several times a year, he hopes to help students and teachers learn where they are and what needs improving and to set clear goals for improvement.

Bernard Parker, the district’s deputy chief executive officer, expressed the hope that the unanimous vote would help the city heal after the difficult search process. Mr. Parker said he particularly welcomed Mr. Burnley’s record of strongly backing site-based management of schools, and said he hoped Mr. Burnley would continue that approach in Detroit.

He also noted the symbolic importance of the board’s choice of a native of the city.

“Since he is a product of Detroit public schools, it’s a great example for our kids to see what they can rise to,” Mr. Parker said.

‘A Risk-Taker’

State Treasurer Mark A. Murray, who as the Republican governor’s appointee to the Detroit school board vetoed the board’s prior choice of a CEO, called Mr. Burnley “a very impressive figure” who would excel at challenges such as implementing Detroit’s new policy to end social promotion and overseeing its ambitious $1.3 billion construction and renovation program.

Ron Wynn, the chief of staff of the Colorado Springs schools, praised the “entrepreneurial spirit” Mr. Burley showed in trying to revitalize that district. The superintendent helped pass a $99 million bond issue that financed several new schools, and made sure the state corrected a “misclassification” of the district that had cost it millions in state funding, Mr. Wynn said.

Some of Mr. Burnley’s decisions in Colorado Springs have proved controversial. Faced with deep budget cuts, the superintendent in 1993 led his district into an unusually extensive agreement to allow advertising in its buildings, on its buses, and at school events, and later advocated its $1-million-a-year exclusive marketing deal with Coca-Cola.

Mr. Wynn said Mr. Burnley “knows it’s not going to be a piece of cake” to take on a district with five times the student population of Colorado Springs, but added that no one should expect him to flinch.

“He’s up to it,” Mr. Wynn said. “He’s a risk-taker, and he’s very high-energy. He doesn’t back down from a challenge.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as New Detroit Chief Welcomes A Difficult Job

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