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Frederick County

Superintendent Right at Home in Her New Position

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C05

Linda Burgee is, in her own words, "psyched."

The Frederick native has been named superintendent of the school system from which she graduated, to which she sent her three kids and where she spent three decades as an elementary school teacher, principal and administrator. No wonder she also says she is "truly blessed."

"I don't think my feet have touched the ground yet."

Superintendent Linda Burgee says she wants to address the achievement gap among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

The responses seem inspired by, and tailored to, the key group she serves: students. School board President Bonnie M. Borsa said Burgee bases her decisions "first and foremost" on what is best for children.

It doesn't hurt that she's also an insider, a lifelong resident of a socially, politically and fiscally conservative county.

When former Frederick superintendent Jack D. Dale resigned in June to become Fairfax County's schools chief, the board voiced its clear preference for a local replacement, then abandoned a nationwide search to choose Burgee.

And when Burgee, who served for the past nine months as interim superintendent, first met with the Board of County Commissioners, President John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., who attended high school with Burgee and opposes the school budget increase every year, ran up and hugged her. "We thought, 'Wow, that's reason enough right there to hire her,' " said commissioner Jan H. Gardner.

If there's anywhere Burgee will need to deploy her experience, political chops and contacts, it is in resolving what she calls her top priority: Frederick's achievement gap. The overwhelming majority of Frederick public school students are white and middle class. Its relatively few poor and minority students make up the bottom of every achievement measure. That's a problem statewide, but with so few such students in the Frederick system, it is particularly glaring.

"This is our single biggest challenge, and it's going to take utilizing all the resources we have in the most effective way we can," Burgee said. This will be done, she added, without compromising the system's academic standards and "by engaging parents in helping us."

White students make up 83 percent of Frederick County's student body. Ten percent of the county's students are black, 5 percent are Asian and 4 percent are Hispanic, who can be of any race. About 13 percent of students qualify as low-income.

And while 78 percent of Frederick's white public school students test as "proficient" or better in reading, 54 percent of black students, 58 percent of Hispanic students and 46 percent of low-income students do the same.

Bridging that gap will take funds. In schools with higher concentrations of underperforming students, Burgee wants to decrease class sizes, provide more teacher training and extend class hours and the school year, if necessary.

Burgee began 2006 budget talks with the county several months earlier than did her predecessor, and she tried a new approach: a joint task force composed of Board of Education and county board members. "I put my teacher's hat on," she said, explaining the costs of meeting federal No Child Left Behind mandates and other initiatives. "They're elected officials . . . they have an obligation to let the public know" the details of the school budget, she said. "Unless we provide them with details, they're at a disadvantage."

The school budget request of $360 million is $8 million more than the commissioners want to give, but last year at this time, the two sides stood $24 million apart. Burgee "provided the county commissioners with a lot of information and justification, so we had a great degree of understanding," Gardner said. "When we ask a question, we get an answer that we understand, [and] if Linda doesn't know something, she'll get the information the same day."

Burgee is known as a get-along administrator, something that, in the opinion of some commissioners, Dale was not. But he managed to win consistently high budget increases for new construction, teacher raises and technology upgrades. During his tenure, computer concentration in the schools improved, from one computer for every 35 students to one for every five.

Gardner said she doesn't believe that Burgee, in the interests of relationship building, will settle for smaller increases. "I think she'll make the needs of school system known and be a strong advocate for those needs," she said. "She's not confrontational but still renders her opinion."

In one potentially controversial decision, the school board, backed by Burgee, has decided to delay plans to built additions to Brunswick High School and Carroll Manor Elementary School and move up planned renovation and technology upgrades to West Frederick Middle School and South Frederick Elementary. The latter school has been identified by the No Child Left Behind program as an underperforming school.

Such decisions "make some people happy or unhappy," Gardner said. The budget will be finalized in June, after public hearings in May, and public reaction to the budget decisions could test Burgee's mettle.

So far, she's made teachers happy, helping to negotiate a 3 percent pay increase and six early-dismissal days to allow them more time to grade homework, contact parents and do other paperwork required. Nancy Dietz, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said the increase "won't catapult us ahead" but should help Frederick -- where pay for beginning teachers lags behind 13 other Maryland counties, including Montgomery, Howard and Washington -- retain more staff.

"She's able to lead the school board toward decisions that are very good for kids and very good for teachers," Dietz said.

In a traditional place with problems that demand new approaches, "This is her time," she said.

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