Thursday, November 15, 2018
Education

Amid mixed reviews, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning aims higher for his second term

LAND O'LAKES — A solemn Kurt Browning pulled the microphone close as he prepared to say words he never wanted to utter.

"The Friday that school grades were released was not a good day for me," the Pasco County superintendent told his School Board.

The district saw a surge in C- and D-rated schools and a near quadrupling of elementary schools on the state's low-300 list. Its overall accountability rating dropped from 34th when he started to 39th.

"That is not something that appeals to me at all," Browning said.

It particularly rankled him because, when he ran for the job in 2012, he panned the district's academic performance as "mediocre."

"Why should we be satisfied with average?" he asked as he announced his bid to unseat two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino. "We can do so much more."

With his first term behind him, and another four years looming, the former Florida secretary of state now acknowledges that running for superintendent was easier than being one.

"I do not take my re-election without opposition as everyone being happy with our schools," he said. "Then we really would settle for mediocre."

Pasco County is the nation's largest school district to have an elected superintendent. When Browning, a well-liked veteran elections official, launched his campaign, he had a fairly easy path to victory: Fiorentino was increasingly unpopular with teachers, the School Board and even her own party.

Browning won every precinct in the primary and cruised to victory in the general against a write-in. He soon brought in new top administrators and set about restructuring the district.

His key goals: improving student scores, district operations and culture.

"I think I'd give myself a 'C,' average," he said.

From the get-go, Browning, 57, proved an aggressive but controversial leader. Ideas came fast and furiously. Some stuck, others disappeared.

A plan to eliminate school literacy, media center and technology specialists, for instance, took hold weeks before classes resumed in 2013. People charged with the work complained they didn't have the needed training or directions.

Browning later admitted they had removed too much expertise from the schools and slowly returned technology specialists, while rewriting the jobs of the educators who replaced others.

Browning has said that in his first two years, his team tried to do too much, often not well.

"We were all moving very fast trying to fix the system," he said. "Either I wasn't asking the right questions or I wasn't given the right information to make the right decisions. I was swimming hard and fast. We've gotten much better today."

Some School Board members saw Browning's doggedness as his value.

"One of his really strong attributes is he sets really high goals, and he's not afraid to admit we haven't achieved those," said Allen Altman, the board's longest-serving member. "We certainly did not make the progress that the superintendent and board desired. … (But) there are many other things he has done that are tremendously positive and have laid the foundation for tremendous success in the future."

Altman pointed to reorganized business operations, which favor trained professionals over upwardly mobile principals. He also mentioned Browning's willingness to listen without feeling threatened by others' ideas.

"He is not afraid to admit when we have a challenge and has shown the courage to address those," said Altman, Browning's friend and neighbor.

Board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal, did not share the enthusiasm.

Luikart criticized Browning for removing institutional knowledge from the district offices while creating new layers of bureaucracy. He also questioned requiring teachers to follow schedules of when to teach standards, with quarterly tests to see how everyone is doing.

That takes away teacher creativity, Luikart said.

Quick to note Browning had not met his original goals, he hesitated to back future steps.

"He came in with a plan. He's had 31/2 years to implement the plan," Luikart said. "I'm still a little optimistic. But I don't see anything that's earth-shattering in the past 31/2 years."

Assessments of Browning's tenure run the gamut.

United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship praised Browning's making pay raises a budget priority. "I don't know that there's a whole lot more that is positive," he added.

He argued that teachers fear retribution for speaking out against district initiatives. He contended that the administration's decisions, such as cutting media specialists, directly correlated to declining test scores, and added that communication with the union is too limited.

"There is less autonomy in the classroom than there was four years ago," he said. "That (leadership) pyramid, it hasn't been inverted yet, and we don't expect it to be."

USEP supported Browning in 2012. In hindsight, Blankenship said, Fiorentino had a greater understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

"As much as we didn't appreciate Heather, there are some teachers in the classroom who would probably want to have Heather back," Blankenship said.

Dawn Scilex, Hudson Elementary School principal, has worked closely with Browning as her F-rated school prepared a turnaround plan. She disagreed that Browning runs things from the top down, calling him "amazing" and "supportive."

"He has asked for input," she said. "We have been involved in all the decisions that come down to our buildings."

Parents' opinions are mixed, as well.

County PTA president Denise Nicholas liked Browning's efforts to expand school choices and to involve parents.

"He definitely has reached out to us and been supportive," Nicholas said.

Heide Janshon, who became a parent advocate through her opposition to the Common Core standards and high-stakes testing, countered that Browning doesn't listen or respond to people who challenge him.

She also suggested his strategy of surrounding himself with great people and holding them accountable hasn't worked.

"He said we can do so much better," Janshon said. "How do I feel like he is doing? Congratulations to us. We are now below mediocre."

Still, Browning has gained respect statewide for taking strong positions. He took the lead as superintendents called for a one-year cancellation of school grades, for instance, and boldly told state officials to keep bureaucrats from disrupting county turnaround schools.

"Kurt came in without that (education) background, and he's done an exceptional job," said state Sen. Bill Montford, who heads the state superintendents association. "He's got great leadership skills and great interpersonal skills, as well. … Among his superintendent colleagues, he is well respected and well liked."

Over his term, Browning said, he tried not to pursue any issues he didn't see as having value — even when facing pushback. He added that he learned lessons from his efforts, and he planned to use those as he hones the district's focus on achievement.

He expected to clarify the district's core objectives and then make sure all employees are on board with the needed urgency.

Already once retired from public life, Browning admitted he didn't have to remain superintendent.

"The fact of the matter is, I don't like losing," he said, referring to the notion of leaving a job with so much undone.

"I have never worked this hard in my adult life. But I also have never done anything as rewarding. I know we can do better than what we're doing, and I can't do it by myself."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

     
     
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