Burke Royster has been in education for 41 years and is in his ninth year as Greenville County Schools superintendent.
Here are his thoughts on how he became superintendent, how COVID-19 has impacted his job and the biggest misconception about how the school district runs.
How did you end up becoming superintendent?
I started out as a teacher and coach. Then I became an assistant principal at the middle school level, a principal in middle school, a principal in high school, and assistant superintendent and superintendent in another county. I came to Greenville as a deputy superintendent and became superintendent when Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher retired.
Every job I had was challenging. I have enjoyed every job I have had as I had it.
When I came to Greenville as deputy superintendent and served in that position for seven years, there was a lot there to build upon. I had already been helping and felt a call to keep building on what we were working on.
My dad was a school superintendent in Anderson School District 5 for 16 years, from 1966-1982. I certainly saw that, lived it and that played out in my home as I grew up. That influenced me as well.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is not a typical day [on this job], but there are typical days. There are days you do certain things. Not every day is exactly alike. Some days fall into a certain pattern.
I always go to work early. I get up at 5:30 a.m., do a walk and check email and the news. Then I’m in the office around 7, 7:15 a.m. and I check in with people in key areas in the organization.
This organization runs off of systems. We have 10,000 employees, 75,000 students over 8,000 square miles. We have 12.3 million square feet of buildings. We have buses running in excess of a trip around the equator. You couldn’t do all of that without systems in place.
I visited 35-40 schools this year. I go into the building, visit with the principal and go to the classroom to talk with teachers, students and other employees. It’s important to be out there and be in touch with what’s going on.
There are always people who want or need to see you for various things. I try to set aside days to talk with them, visit schools, or to stay in the office and keep track of how the systems are working. As a leadership group, we work to fine-tune everything.
How has COVID-19 changed your job?
In short, dramatically, because most of what we are doing is how we mitigate against the issues that come out of COVID-19. That was about all we were doing coming out of the spring and going into the summer. Now we are having to do that while running school. We are running two school systems: one in-person and another that is 100% virtual. We are managing and leading in very different ways [while] maintaining our focus to make sure we are doing what we can to ensure the health and safety of students and employees to the highest degree that we can.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
I guess most people have no idea of the scope of what we do, whether it is me as superintendent or others in the district. They really think of their experience in school and don’t see all that is necessary to make what they see work. We are only surpassed in size by Prisma Health.
We have the health and safety responsibility of students and employees. All the people who are in the system to support all those people, whether it is food service, finance or bus drivers.
When people get an idea of the scope of what we do, it is eye-opening to them. When you go anywhere, you see the service you receive. You don’t see what makes it possible. That’s a huge misconception.