Burke Says She’s Ready To Take On Issues On MMSD School Board

From her dining room table on Madison’s East Side, Mary Burke is at ease talking about education in the city that she loves.

It’s a topic close to her heart, having retired as secretary of Commerce under former Gov. Jim Doyle to focus her time and attention on the issue of which “there is nothing more important.”

Yet, she said she knows not all students get the education they need or deserve, noting that only one in two black or Latino students in the Madison Metropolitan School District graduate from high school.

“We have to be providing a great education for all students,” says Burke. “We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at the schools, we shouldn’t be pointing fingers at our teachers. We can’t expect any one organization to solve the type of issues that we have.”

In her 50s, she said she considers herself extremely “fortunate and grateful” to retire young and dedicate her time to the challenges in city schools.

A long-time board member with the Boys & Girls Club locally, last year she made headlines when she pledged $2.5 million of her own money to help make Madison Prep a reality. The Urban League-backed charter school failed to get school board approval in December.

Burke said she’s not universally sold on charter schools or even Madison Prep. She said she believes the district must find a solution to help all students, but supported the venture because at the time, the district simply had no other options on the table.

“I think there’s a role for charter schools, but I think it should be a limited role, and it should be one in which we have a high-priority need that’s not being met within the district,” she said. “We have to make sure that the options and solutions we’re looking at can address the whole scope of the problem.”

Before the Department of Commerce, Burke was a vice president at Trek Bicycle, a Wisconsin company that her family founded. She holds an MBA from Harvard University and in her assembled experience, said she feels there’s a basic principle about why and how governmental organizations fail to innovate.

“In public organizations, I think you always approach issues from the view of ‘What can you afford?,’ and almost always ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have enough money,” she said. “And in private organizations, at least at Trek, we sort of always started from the thing of ‘Where do we want to be? What is our vision?’ and then we figure out how to get there.”

Viewing her retirement as an asset, Burke said she’ll have all the time she needs to meet teachers, parents, students and administrators to do her homework if elected. Currently, she volunteers as a tutor and mentor for several local students, something she plans to continue.

While the achievement gap might be the central issue in Madison, she said she hasn’t lost sight of the need to make school challenging for all students, even those at the head of the class.

“My feeling is, let’s not set the bar low in terms of just compliance with state and federal standards, let’s look at how we can have a school district that reflects the type of city Madison is.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series profiling Burke and the other three candidates vying for a seat on Madison’s school board.