You could say that the desire to work in education runs in outgoing Marin County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke’s blood. The oldest of eight children, Burke played a big role supporting her brothers and sisters, one of whom had learning differences. It was in large part because of her sister that, early on, Burke wanted to become a special education teacher. She got the opportunity to work with special needs students soon after arriving at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973 and a master’s degree in 1976. During that time, she began volunteering at Forest Meadows Development Center, a school on Dominican University’s campus for students ages 3 to 21 with special needs. She then went on to become an instructional aide at the school and eventually, the principal.
Burke then worked for the Marin County Office of Education in a variety of roles and departments, from special education to personnel, before making the decision in 1994 to run for Marin County superintendent of schools. For an impressive seven terms, Burke has run the Marin County Office of Education and overseen the county’s 17 public school districts that serve more than 30,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Now, 50 years after she got her start working in education, Burke is preparing for her last official day in the office on December 2. We spoke to Burke about her inspiring career — a time during which she’s always strived to put kids’ needs first.
Marin Magazine (MM): What’s changed since you were first elected as Marin County superintendent of schools?
Mary Jane Burke (MJB): A lot has stayed the same, but so much has changed, too. The part that’s the same is, number one, there’s no one right way to educate a student, and number two, our schools cannot do their jobs alone — it’s only possible as a result of the strong and highly effective partnerships that we have in our community that allow us to serve kids at the levels that we do.
On another level, everything has changed. When I started as superintendent, computers were just coming into play, and there have been a variety of different programs adopted to teach academic content. But also, academics are now as important to consider as social-emotional learning, and students’ basic needs have become the responsibility of our school setting, whether it’s ensuring access to food, healthcare or technology.
MM: What have been your proudest accomplishments during your seven terms in the role?
MJB: I’m proud that during challenging times I was able to have the courage to do the right thing for our kids, like working with our amazing community of families and teachers to get students back to school at the beginning of Covid-19, and also, that I recognized from the beginning that schools can’t do it alone. It’s all about the relationships we have with other entities that act in support of our families and students. Another thing I’m proud of is everything we do is to ensure equitable access to needed services for all students.
MM: What do you recall as the biggest challenge you faced during your tenure? Has it been the ongoing pandemic?
MJB: My work in the Sausalito Marin City School District when the attorney general came into play was obviously a very big deal. It was the first time in 50 years that a school district has had a desegregation order.
More recently, the biggest challenge has been the pandemic. I came to realize that there are times when you need to lead differently. Sometimes, it’s unequivocally in a collaborative manner, waiting until every person is on board before you move forward. At other times, like the pandemic, it was clear that in order to get students back in school, particularly our students with learning differences who couldn’t access their education virtually, it was critical that I lead with the framing that the best thing for these students and their families is to get them in school, and we’re going to do what we need to do in order to make sure that happens. Not everyone agreed, but I’m confident that that was the right approach. We were the first in our state to be able to get our students back to school, and I’m so proud of our teaching staff and school leaders who were willing to do what was needed.
MM: How did SchoolsRule–Marin start?
MJB: SchoolsRule is an amazing example of what can happen when an entire community puts their focus on all kids. It started with the unprecedented leadership of Trisha Garlock, the president of SchoolsRule, who was able to get the foundations in our county to galvanize on behalf of this effort. Venables Bell & Partners has developed the most provocative ads for the past 10 years pro bono that name the real issues we’re dealing with. The Marin Community Foundation was the only funder at the beginning, and the Marin Independent Journal provided space in the paper for full-page ads.
In the beginning, we raised $20,000 — not even a dollar a kid. Now, 10 years in, we’ve raised close to $7 million. It’s distributed per student, so affluent districts with a small number of students receive a smaller amount and our largest districts with the most need get a larger amount.
MM: Tell us about the new SchoolsRule Equity in Education Fund established in your name.
MJB: The equity fund is an example of the evolution of the of the organization to have some base amounts of funding, but then in addition, to offer the opportunity to have additional resources go to our schools that have students with higher need.
MM: What led to your decision not to run for county superintendent again?
MJB: I was on a hike with my partner, Mike, one day. I was talking about work, and he said, “You just love this job, don’t you?” And I said, “Honey I love it, and you can’t even imagine how inspiring this work is.” And he said, “Well that’s great, but don’t you think it’s someone else’s turn?” Here we were on this hike, so I couldn’t go anywhere, and I thought, it’s true. It’s time for someone else to bring a new lens and additional opportunities to this amazing organization, and I don’t want to be the person who holds on so tight at the expense of the children, so as tough a decision as it was, I know it was absolutely the right decision.
MM: You’ve stressed that this is not “retirement.” So, what’s next for you?
MJB: My son said it best when I told him I wouldn’t be running again, “This is not the end of anything more than one chapter, and indeed, is an incredible opportunity to begin again.” I’ll be doing things that give me joy and purpose. I look forward to applying my skills to making the world a better place — and to assisting our communities. One thing I want to do is to continue to develop the SchoolsRule strategy so that it can move beyond Marin County to nationwide — it’s that great.”
MM: Do you have any advice for incoming Marin County superintendent of schools John Carroll?
MJB: My advice is simple, but not simplistic: Never forget that the most precious resource of our community is our young people, and as decisions come forward, put the needs of our students first.
MM: What do you hope to leave as your legacy?
MJB: It’s a gift is to have strong relationships and partnerships, so that there is never just one person who would get credit for accomplishments. No one can do such big tasks alone. The main thing I care about of all the things you could say about me is that everything that I’ve accomplished is because of the opportunities I’ve had to interact and build relationships with other amazing people. I feel nothing but gratitude for this time.
The SchoolsRule Equity in Education Fund
Announcing the new SchoolsRule Equity in Education Fund in honor of Mary Jane Burke. Thank and honor Mary Jane for her 50 years of service to the children of Marin.
For more information or to donate* visit us at: https:donationcenter.marincf.org/fund/34
*All donations, up to $150,000, will be matched by the Marin Community Foundation.
To read more about donating, click below:
A coalition supporting every public school in Marin
Lotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.