January 25, 2012 - By Joe St. Henry
Burchart (click for larger version)
How long has Mary Jo Burchart been a member of Orion's Board of Education?
Let's just say when she joined the team the Detroit Lions had been to the playoffs the previous fall, the state's economy was humming and 9/11 was just another day in September.
Burchart joined the board in July 2000. She has been President since May 2010 and is leaving the position this December, after more than 13 years.
"It's been a great experience, but it's time for somebody else to join the board with their ideas and perspectives," she said last week. The next school board election will take place in November.
Eduction has always been part of Burchart's life. She studied biology in college and received her Master's Degree in teaching, then taught biology at a private high school earlier in her career. She now teaches the subject at Oakland Community College.
After moving to Lake Orion 16 years ago with her family, it did not take long for Burchart to get involved in the school district. She joined a number of committees, including those involved in determing if Oakview Middle School was needed and securing the bond for its construction.
Her dedication and enthusiam caught the attention of a number of people who thought she should run for a school board position. She was so busy on multiple school-related committees, she and her husband actually thought this may lighten her busy schedule, Burchart remembered - now laughing at the rationale.
A lot has changed in the district since then. First off, Burchart says educators have taken a different approach to the job in recent years.
"In the past, teachers took a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, but that does not work today," she said. "We intentionally try very hard now to assure every student gets the educational resources they need to be successful."
Burchart also noted that the community was still enjoying growth and the school district was adding students early in her tenure.
"When I first joined the board, (Lake Orion Community Schools) was still on an upswing in student enrollment, which worked in our favor while other districts were making cuts," she said. "Now, our enrollment has pretty much flattened out, so we're making tough decisions.
"But we were able to stay away from the budget bullets for a long time."
That is not to say the board did not anticipate tougher days ahead, she added. During the 2002-2006 timeframe, it cut school programs in anticipation of budget issues and some people did not like the decisions.
These included changes to the music programs at the elementary and middle schools levels, plus foreign language instruction at the middle schools.
"Our goal was to keep the district financially solvent, while other districts were failing," Burchart said.
Not surprisingly, the hardest decisions that she and other board members have had to make involve cutting positions.
"I appreciate the fact that people have families," she said. "It is hard to keep your focus on the big picture when making these decisions, but you have to do so."
It is this broad focus and truly understanding the scope of the job that are traits of effective school board members, Burchart thinks. People should not be on the board because they have a specific issue with the schools and want to fix it, she stressed.
Burchart also thinks effective board members also must be able to consider other people's perspectives and open to new ideas - within reason.
"We need to take advantage of new approaches to teaching," she said. "But you have to carefully evaluate them. I don't think our kids should be used as guinea pigs in the process."
One of the new approaches that Burchart thinks cannot be ignored is the use of technology to teach.
"There will always be a human element to teaching, but there are now different ways to learn," she said. "Look at how much information is at the fingertips of kids today through technology. I'm jealous - something that took me three hours to research when I was younger takes today's students five minutes to find. How kids learn is changing."
The greatest challenge facing the board in 2012 according to Burchart is overcoming the district's deficit. She warned there is the possibility of additinal program and staff cuts at all levels.
"We don't take these decisions lightly and put a lot of thought into them," she said earlier this month at a school board meeting.
After stepping down later this year, Burchart still expects to be engaged in the school district in some fashion, even though her daugher will be graduating from Lake Orion High School in June. (Burchart's son is in college.)
"I'm still working things out, but I plan to still be volunteering for things at the schools and our church," she said.
Who knows - maybe this also will include a reserved front-row seat in the audience at future school board meetings?
Given her tenure, she will undoubtedly be welcomed by many.