Mary Jane Burke

Mary Jane Burke is having a tough day. Her face is flushed, her red dress rumpled, her sentences are arriving in disconnected bursts. “I’ve got a critical budget briefing first thing in the morning,” says the Marin County Superintendent of Schools. “Sacramento is in a state of flux. It’s day to day with them; it’s impossible for us to plan with any certainty.” Obviously, her long day is taking its toll.

An offer to reschedule the interview is refused. “No way,” she says, suddenly appearing relaxed and smiling. “I love to talk about Marin’s schools. They’re doing such a great job. And I’m the one who’s the face of public education in Marin.”

Burke came to Marin nearly 40 years ago — and never left. Back then she was 18 years old and a freshman at Dominican College, then a bucolic Catholic girls’ college in San Rafael (and now Dominican University).

 “I guess you could say I was the quiet type,” Burke says. “I really wanted to be a special education teacher; that’s all I thought about and worked for.”

Today,  Burke still loves kids and teaching. Only now she’s responsible for overseeing the education of 40,000 students. “My values are instilling pride and a good work ethic in kids,” she says, talking with passion and animation that nearly knocks over a Styrofoam coffee cup.

Working alongside Burke in that process are Marin’s 19 school districts, which encompass the county’s 74 public schools and 3,300 principals, teachers and certified personnel. Under Burke’s immediate supervision at the county Office of Education in Terra Linda are three assistant superintendents and more than 300 employees whose jobs range from accounting to special education to security.

How Burke, the once-reticent college student, arrived at such a lofty spot is an intriguing story. “I did it the now-fashionable way,” she jokes. “I was elected.” It was 1994 and Burke had worked with the Office of Education for 20 years, first as a special education teacher dealing with developmentally challenged youngsters, next as a special ed principal, and then as a program manager. Following that, she was assistant superintendent of educational services for 10 years.

“In 1994, when I heard Bryon Mauzy was retiring as superintendent, a bell in my brain went off and — even though I’d never imagined myself running for elective office, I thought ‘why not?’” Burke ran for superintendent and won. “I was unopposed in that first election,” she says, “and I’ve yet to have a contested election.” All told, counting her 20 years as teacher and administrator, Burke has been with the Office of Education for nearly 35 years. In fact, she has never worked anyplace else.

Burke is proud of her work — and justifiably so. In 2008, 72 percent of Marin’s public schools exceeded state academic standards (scoring more than 800 on the state Academic Performance Index), up 4 percent from 2007, when, as Burke points out, Forbes magazine named Marin schools as providing the best “bang for the buck” of any district in the country. The ranking was based on per-pupil annual spending (adjusted for cost of living, Marin’s is $6,579), SAT scores (the Marin average is 1,133) and the percentage of students graduating high school (98 percent in Marin).

Burke is swift to refuse credit for such performance. “Don’t forget for one minute,” she says, “all those local districts with all that local control, all the wonderful teachers, administrators and elected school board members, and all those fantastically involved and supportive parents and communities — that’s what really makes Marin’s schools succeed; the district office is here to support them. That’s what I do, and I love what I do.”

Burke’s husband, the esteemed educator Dr. Larry Lyon, died in 1997. She lives alone in Novato.

How can Marin’s schools, with 19 districts—each with its own superintendent, administrative staff, etc.—working to educate fewer than 40,000 students, be anything but inefficient? First, let me clarify: I superintend four of Marin’s smaller, rural districts—and then Lagunitas and San Rafael appear like four districts, but they’re really just two districts. So that brings Marin down to, say, 14 districts. That said, essentially what we do is this: when it’s good for the kids to operate as one big school district, we do that. And when it’s best for the kids to operate as small units, we do that. As for parents and the surrounding community, when you vote in your own school board in a small district, you’re more likely to support that district’s schools. And just a reminder, we can’t consolidate schools without voters’ approval. And usually, people like their school district and their schools. So for the last seven years we’ve been operating on what’s called the “shared services” model and it’s amazing what we are doing. It’s efficient and effective.

As superintendent of schools, what specifically do you do? The job is mandated in the state constitution. Marin is one of 53 of California’s 58 counties that elect its superintendent of schools. So I hold responsibility like you can’t believe. Meaning that if we can maintain the public trust, we’ll continue to have a level of support the kids deserve and taxpayers demand. The bottom line in this community is that we have great schools. People move to this area because of these schools and it’s not just because these are schools that do a great job on a test score. It’s because these are schools that strive to provide a well-rounded education to get kids ready for life, not for a test.

As we head into 2009, what are your greatest concerns? My biggest concerns are two-fold: meeting the needs of all the students in our community — and I mean all students — and being able to recruit and retain the best possible staff. Regarding the latter, young people just aren’t moving into the field of teaching. To counter this, we have a countywide approach to attracting and supporting new teachers that includes a new teachers’ hotline as well as an application process that works for all the districts. Yet we’re having difficulty finding special ed teachers, speech and language therapists, teachers of color and teachers who are bilingual. And if teachers can’t afford to live here, they might come here for an initial job, but they won’t stay very long. So the district is challenged. I believe to my core that, next to the parent, a teacher is the most important person to ever come in contact with a child.

As Marin, the nation and the world settle into the 21st century, what skills would you like to see our high school graduates possess? We want every graduate to have a strong school-work experience. I’m not talking about visiting the workplace; I’m talking about working. You show up on time and you’re dressed appropriately. Second, I would like to see everyone graduate with a fluency in at least two languages. This means those who can speak Spanish will be ahead of those who cannot. And then there’s French, Italian and even sign language — proficiency in two languages before graduating from high school; let’s just think about it. We need hardworking people of character who are willing and able to give back to their community.