The new Brandon honorary mayor's primary focus in life is kids – lots of them. The name Sue Burkett is likely a familiar one among many Eastern Hillsborough County school administrators, staff, students, parents and other community members. The University of South Florida graduate — she holds both a bachelor's and master's degree in exceptional education — has taught at Plant City and Durant High schools.
She also served as assistant principal and principal at several middle and high schools in Riverview and Brandon prior to assuming her current role as head of Bloomingdale High School, a position she's occupied since 2013.
Her most recent achievement was being named the 2017 Honorary Mayor of Brandon, an accomplishment she earned by raising the most money ($41,601.57) for charitable purposes during June's month-long annual contest sponsored by the Community Roundtable. Burkett, 47, divided the dollars between the Bloomingdale High School Academic Foundation, Center Place Fine Arts and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay.
She recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Joyce McKenzie about her longtime affection for kids with special needs, her career as an educator and the legacy she hopes to leave in the community.
Why did you decide on a career in the educational field?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in first grade, I vividly remember going to the classroom next door to play with the physically impaired students. I honestly think I knew then I wanted to be some type of special education teacher.
I understand that you especially have a heart for special needs kids and that at one of the schools where you served as principal you began a Best Buddies program, an initiative that promotes one-on-one friendships between students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. What was your motive for starting the program, one that has since spread to other area schools?
Growing up in middle and high school I was involved with Special Olympics, so naturally when my teachers asked at Burns to start it up, it was a no brainer. I got involved from the start and have been coaching with them ever since. Bringing it to Bloomingdale was a natural evolution. The students and staff opened their arms to inclusion and it is truly part of our everyday culture. Our non-disabled student population has realized there is no such thing as (being) disabled – the term we use at Bloomingdale is "differently abled."
We are not only state champions in Special Olympics events, but we host an Eastern County event called the IncrediBULL Games, which is becoming a school-wide day where we host athletes from middle and high schools in the area at our own area Special Olympic Games. It is one of our school's favorite and most proud days.
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What made you decide that this year was a good time to run for the office of Brandon's Honorary Mayor, especially when you also were in the throngs of planning your wedding that took place just a couple of days after a time-consuming and rigorous month-long campaign?
Well, a group of moms talked me into it, to be honest, and I'm not sure I thought it through very well. I knew the money Michelle Hernandez (Brandon's Honorary Mayor in 2015) donated to us (via the Bloomingdale High School Academic Foundation) in her campaign two years ago was dwindling and the budget crunch for the state and our (school) district was inevitable, so I think I really thought we were being proactive. In hindsight, the timing wasn't ideal but I tend to make decisions on what's best for kids rather than what's best for adults.
How and why did you pick the charities that will reap the rewards of your very successful campaign?
I chose Bloomingdale for my own students to benefit. I chose the Boys and Girls Club because back in December we took part in helping make Christmas possible after the Winston Park Boys and Girls Club (in Tampa) burned down. I wanted to keep the fundraising meaningful to the school so they were a logical choice. And Center Place (in Brandon) does a lot for our arts and theatre programs for kids.
Were your own kids supportive of you when you decided to become a candidate in this year's honorary mayoral race?
My own children (Jake, 19, and Becca, 16) have always supported me in everything I've ever done for my students and school, but oftentimes I feel that it was at their expense because other kids got my time, too, and I was never able to be just a mom. As they have gotten older I believe they appreciate who I am and the giving heart I have. When other kids come up to them and say, "If it wasn't for your mom I'd have never graduated," that's pretty powerful to them, too.
What was your main takeaway from the many people who supported you in your campaign?
I am constantly overwhelmed by the support my staff, parents and community give to the school. It takes a village to raise a child and I can't do it by myself. When it comes to raising money that's not my forte. Many people stepped up and organized events on my committee and without them, none of this would've happened. I'm still in charge of school in the summer because we have teachers to hire, students to register and schedules to make – not to mention I was trying to plan a small wedding in the Cayman Islands. But it was never about Sue Burkett winning. I was simply the face behind the cause to raise money for the kids.
Lastly, what would you like your legacy to be at the completion of your term as Brandon's honorary mayor?
I have never thought about that, to be honest. The legacy I always think about is what my own children will say about me as a mom and what the students, teachers and families will say about me as a principal. I suppose they are really all the same. I want my legacy to be that I made a difference in the lives of kids. I am not perfect by any means and I don't have all the answers. But my heart has always been about doing the best thing for a child, my own or someone else's.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at firstname.lastname@example.org.