There’s always two sides to a story…. Dr. Heath Burns – Potential BGISD Superintendent

Nellie Doneva/Reporter-News Heath Burns, Abilene Independent School District superintendent, takes his two sets of twin children, Eli and Emma, 8, and Gabe and Grant, 6, to school at Thomas Elementary School

Courtesy Photo – Nellie Doneva/Reporter-News Heath Burns takes his two sets of twin children, Eli and Emma, 8, and Gabe and Grant, 6, to school at Thomas Elementary School

Monday, March 9, 2015

RL Phipps – www.BloomingGroveTX.com

The recent unanimous decision of the Blooming Grove ISD Board of Trustees to name Dr. Heath Burns as their lone candidate for the position of Blooming Grove ISD Superintendent has certainly stirred up it’s fair share of controversy. Namely due to the media/social media firestorm that has surrounded his recent departure as the leader of the Abilene ISD amidst allegations of improperly handling the timely reporting of two instances of alleged misconduct between  AISD staff members and students within the school district of 17,000 students.

The crux of the matter at hand is whether or not Dr Burns followed protocol in the matter and whether he acted in the best interests of the students. Chief Standridge of Abilene Police Department alleges that Burns may have committed a class A misdemeanor by his failure to report  within 48 hours upon first hearing unsubstantiated rumors of alleged misconduct. Burns contends that he acted swiftly and aggressively to substantiate the rumors, and that once the first note of evidence was uncovered, he took immediate action to remove the alleged perpetrators from the school and notified the proper authorities.


Earlier this afternoon, I was able to speak directly with Dr. Burns. He agreed to answer some questions in order to help bring some clarity to the situation at hand.

  1. BGTX – I have just become aware of the incident that occurred in April, 2005 while you were the superintendent at Angleton ISD. According to reports, 38 year old Marcus Cloud had been a popular former principal, teacher and baseball coach for 11 years in the Hempstead ISD. He had recently been hired as a principal of Angleton High School when it fell to you to inform him that allegations had been made against him of improper conduct with a student that occurred during his tenure at Hempstead ISD. Apparently he denied the allegations, but immediately offered his resignation, as he knew what was coming and didn’t want to put the school district through any embarrassment. He resigned immediately and left his keys and ID badge on your desk. His body was discovered later that evening with a gunshot wound to the chest, having committed suicide at a nearby rest stop.

Can you elaborate on the incident, and tell us what effect, if any, did that incident have on you then, and has that experience had a bearing on how you have treated subsequent incidents involving allegations of improper behavior between staff and students, particularly those that occurred recently in Abilene?

Dr Burns – “Mr. Cloud denied all wrong doing, period.  He was extremely upset about the allegations that originated from local law enforcement pertaining to alleged inappropriate relationships with students.   I learned lessons from dealing with the Cloud situation.  I learned the importance of doing due diligence before drawing conclusions.  I also suffered a harsh reminder about the frailty of life.”

  1. BGTX – Regarding your being named as the lone candidate for BGISD superintendent, one of the biggest concerns that has been expressed by the parents and citizens of Blooming Grove is that of how the ongoing investigation in Abilene and your responsibility to make yourself available for possible future defense of any proceedings that occurred on your watch will affect your performance here? How much of a distraction will or could this be?

Dr. Burns – “I will not allow any ongoing situation in AISD to become a distraction.  Certainly, it is my duty to remain available to support my prior district, but my priority would be serving the kids and teachers of BG.”

  1. BGTX – Are you able to disclose at this point the length of time your initial contract would be with BGISD?

Dr Burns – “There have been no final decisions regarding my contract.   I would expect detail pertaining to the contract to be finalized by the 23rd or so.”

  1. BGTX – If selected as the new superintendent, can you share with us your vision of what you hope to accomplish? Have you had a chance to establish any goals or benchmarks you’d like to achieve?

“It would be premature to offer too many thoughts on start-up, because the district performs so well in status quo.  My first order of business would be to listen and learn.”


After researching this story for the better part of this last week, I decided to take Mr Burns up on his offer stated in his open letter sent home with all the BGISD students last Friday, which invited anyone to come to the High School office and review his extensive application package sent to the BGISD Trustees for his consideration as the new superintendent. When I arrived, I was given a very thick stack of paper by the superintendent’s secretary and I sat down to read what it had to say. I knew Dr. Burns had an impressive career thus far, but I must admit, I was impressed with the body of  work achieved by a man who is barely over 40. What was most enlightening were  the letters of reference from Burns past associates, many of which were from his most recent peers at the Abilene ISD Board of Trustees.

The other side of the story was becoming apparent. Here was a man who is highly respected by his peers. Here was a story unfolding that wasn’t so apparent in all the news stories coming out from the recent press. One rather lengthy reference was from a Mr. Charles Wolfe, who states that he is “a lifelong resident of Abilene who attended AISD for 12 years, served on the AISD Board of Trustees for 12 years, and now has grandchildren there.”

Here is a portion of his account:

At board meetings, both public and closed sessions, and in any private conversations, Dr. Burns always returned to the litmus test: “what is best for the kids?” Everything else was secondary.  That focus was refreshing and made my job as trustee a lot more fulfilling and enjoyable!

“Accountability” and “effectiveness” started having meanings instead of being the latest buzz words. Attitudes and focus toward sustainable educational results and doing what was best for the students of the district became the norm instead of trying to find new creative ways to bypass or cheat the accountability system.

The bottom line, Dr. Burns is a proven effective leader.  He knows firsthand of the problems that school districts encounter and takes realistic and practical steps on addressing those issues instead of making excuses . His approach of keeping the focus on the education of the student is one not found everywhere .

The middle of October of 2014, the City manager retired and left a power vacuum among the city department heads.  It was a free for all, as the city council moved very slowly in replacing the 12 year veteran. In December, Abilene’s chief of police decided  it was his turn to be in the spotlight.   He held a press conference to announce the arrest and how he was taking exception with how AISD’s dealt with a staff member (Michael Trook) that they had under surveillance for several days.  Their investigation was all unknown to AISD at the time, as the APD was secretly waiting for Trook to continue his relationship and allow them the opportunity to collect evidence.  When Mr. Trook  self reported part of the relationship to the administration, Dr Burns insisted on and received Trook’s immediate resignation.   Michael Trook was later charged by the APD with having an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old female student.  However , the immediate action by the district messed up the surveillance efforts and left the officers in charge scrambling. They then became a little miffed when their first search warrant didn’t include a school computer full of student records , and AISD wanted them to sign for the machine if they wanted to take it.  Instead of signing for the computer , they went back to the judge for a 2nd warrant, citing that the district was hampering their investigation.

Another case surfaced during Christmas break, when a rumor surfaced from a 4th hand source that a high school boy was having an inappropriate relationship with a female teacher . The principal called the parents to confirm the rumor that was said to be from them and they denied it came from them . The teacher was called in and grilled by the Principal, Dr Burns and Mark Neal, the district’s head of personnel (and lawyer).  The teacher’s story matches the parents, and insisted that nothing was going on. Days later, the parents recanted their story and admitted they knew about their son. The district immediately brought in the teacher (Breanne Brown), got her to admit that she had lied in their earlier meeting, and that she had indeed at least had improper communication with the student. The district asked for, and received, her immediate resignation. The police were immediately notified of the resignation under suspicious circumstances. The APD chief was displeased that the teacher was “strong armed” to resign, compromising their ability to use investigative methods including one-party consent calls and the collecting of digital evidence.

Leaving teachers and administrators in place that weren’t doing their job or were abusing kids isn’t in Dr Burns’ DNA.  He has the ability in most cases to get to the bottom of a situation, correct the things that are correctable, and get rid of the ones that aren’t.  Leaving an abuser in the classroom or in leadership role at a campus wasn’t going to happen under his watch, period. The Abilene chief of police didn’t like that approach at all. With only a powerless interim city manager in place, the chief held a series of press conferences during Christmas break to blast the superintendent and AISD in public about how the situation was handled. With only vague statements about how he didn’t like the way AISD was handling things, the lack of cooperation, followed by details can’t be released because of pending investigations. Rumors started flying, and everyone that ever had a beef with the district started making wild claims. The same techniques that created such unrest and forced out Dr Moehler was turned to by those wishing to return to “happy days”. It worked before and it would work again.

As the Police innuendos caused imaginations to run wild, rumors multiplied . Wild stories developed. As no creditable facts were released to the general public, school board members were stopped everywhere they went , as the general public was dying to hear the latest inside story and or offer their 2 cents as to which rumors they thought were true.  Board members also received an earful from those offering their support of the district. Then the APD pours gas on the fire and announces two more investigations taking place.  Of course, they didn’t tell the public that the subjects of their investigations had been fired or resigned months earlier. The general public consensus was the offenders were still working at AISD and Burns was covering it up. Finally the police announced the suspects were FORMER AISD employees, but at this point, the stories had a life of their own.

The Abilene Police Department started requesting all sorts of records over the last 5 years . It was internally estimated by the district that it would take several people working full time several months to locate , copy and produce the copies. It was made known that this was just the start of their requests. With the constant public calls wanting to know what was happening and/or defending the actions , board members lives and jobs were being affected. This had to stop. An understanding was developed with the APD to rescind the requests and let things calm down if Burns left.  It was decided, it was time for AISD to move on. For the good of the district , Burns had to go. After a late night closed door session, Dr Burns was talked into signing a Voluntary Separation Agreement on February 2nd and take a buyout.

Question: If I had it to do all over again, would I have pushed for the hiring of Dr Burns and/or someone like him 5 years ago? Yes , without a doubt, AISD is much better today for him being here 5 years than any other thing I could have done as a board member. He identified, trained and put into place academic leaders that the district will continue to benefit from for years to come.

Question: Do you think it was fair how Dr. Burns was treated? As I would tell my kids: Life isn’t always fair – make the best of whatever cards you were dealt and move forward.  Sometimes elected officials feel like they have to overlook what is fair for one individual and look at the big picture. School board members, earning nothing for their service, have their own day jobs and their own families to worry about. The decision was balanced out in their minds by providing some funds to help offset the treatment.

I would be happy to discuss in whatever level of detail any general or specific questions you might have.

Sincerely ,

Charles L Wolfe

Charles Wolfe born and raised in Abilene.  He attended Abilene public schools and graduated in the top 25 of his graduating class at Abilene High.  He has a BBA in Accounting from Abilene Christian University and a MBA from Texas Tech. He is also a CPA and has earned several computer related certifications. Charles served as a trustee of the Abilene ISO for 12 years including 2 years as President.  For the last 29 years , he has owned and operated an accounting software company headquartered in Abilene with customers in 45 states and 8 countries.  For the last 30+ years, he has also maintained strong involvements with the Boy Scouts of America, Better Business Bureau, Day Nursery of Abilene, and Abilene Chamber of Commerce.


The entire Application Package from Dr. Burns is available below in it’s entirety. (43 pages)

Reference Material – Heath Burns Application Package – March 2015


At board meetings, both public and closed sessions, and in any private conversations, Dr. Burns always  returned to the litmus test: “what is best for the kids?” Everything else was secondary.  That focus was refreshing and made my job as trustee a lot more fulfilling and enjoyable!

Leaving teachers and administrators in place that weren’t doing their job or were abusing kids isn’t in Dr Burns’ DNA.  He has the ability in most cases to get to the bottom of a situation, correct the things that are correctable, and get rid of the ones that aren’t.  Leaving an abuser in the classroom or in leadership role at a campus wasn’t going to happen under his watch, period.- Charles Wolfe

 

I enjoyed my five years in Abilene ISD. I considered my tenure a great success as did my board members as indicated in the accompanying letters of support.  However, even the best of things sometimes come to an unfortunate end.  In December of 2014 our district and city was rocked by a sex scandal involving a high school principal, teachers, and sadly several high school aged students. I reported these incidents to SBEC and to local police as required by law. These incidents rocked our community and ultimately led me to a decision to separate. Please understand that I left the district voluntarily and that I acknowledge no wrongdoing.  I have a very serious philosophical difference in opinion than the chief of police.  I believe cases of child abuse should be reported to the police when a person has, “reason to believe.” The police chief believes every rumor should be reported and that the school district should refrain from investigating.  My position on this issue allows me to expediently remove a suspect from the classroom in a matter of minutes, thereby creating safety for all students.  The chief insists that the school does no investigating and simply refers the rumor. While this is the easy way out, it would allow a sex offender more time and access to our students as police procedure calls on the suspect to be one of the last persons investigated.  Finally, I value the protection of our teachers ‘ reputation to refer ever rumor I hear to the police without first inquiring administratively on our own.  Ask around, you will find my process commonplace in school districts.  The board and I agreed that despite our outstanding 5 year run, it was time for a change in leadership.  They wished to abide the chief s vision for referral of all rumors.  Please understand that I initiated the conversation about exiting, and was not asked to leave.  It was time for fresh eyes, in light of some serious philosophical differences, and I made the right choice for children. – Dr. Heath Burns

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