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Browning's plans for Pasco schools put his communication pledge to the test

Kurt Browning, with his wife, Kathy, takes the oath of office as Pasco’s new school superintendent from Clerk of Courts Paula O’Neil on Nov. 21. Browning took office pledging to improve transparency in the district, but lately he’s been under fire for proposed changes and the way he’s introduced them.

JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times (2012)

Kurt Browning, with his wife, Kathy, takes the oath of office as Pasco’s new school superintendent from Clerk of Courts Paula O’Neil on Nov. 21. Browning took office pledging to improve transparency in the district, but lately he’s been under fire for proposed changes and the way he’s introduced them.

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning came into office last November pledging to conduct business much differently than his predecessor.

Heather Fiorentino was often criticized for her poor communications, a shortcoming she often acknowledged. Browning promised transparency.

Almost instantly, Browning won praise for his approachable demeanor, his openness and his willingness to share information. His email inbox filled with notes of thanks after he sent a holiday greeting to staff, and again after he held meet-and-greets where he explained his vision.

But lately, Browning's been bombarded with letters of disapproval — both of his message and the way in which it was delivered.

First came his proposal to close Moore Mickens Education Center. It surfaced as rumor, later confirmed but with few details.

Browning backed off after facing an angry crowd intent on derailing his plan.

Next came his plan to cut school-based media specialist and literacy coach jobs. This time, Browning presented the news in a podcast to employees and encouraged them to email their thoughts.

Once again, though, the superintendent didn't include many key specifics. A later podcast by assistant superintendent Amelia Larson expanded, but offered that more information would be "forthcoming." Into the void came vocal opposition.

"Could we have rolled it out better? I'll admit we could have," Browning said Friday.

But he stuck by his plans as research-based solutions aimed at improving academic results.

"I am over the fact that they are upset that I didn't consult them," Browning said. "What we have been doing is not working."

• • •

From the start, Browning made clear he understood the importance of a well presented, clear message. In his Florida Association of District School Superintendents mentoring plan, he listed "communications and relationships with stakeholders" his No. 1 priority.

"It is important that all stakeholders understand decision outcomes, how decisions are made, what processes are used for decision-making, and what opportunities they have to contribute to the decision-making process," he wrote in his plan.

Coming in behind Fiorentino, the shift appeared necessary.

Employees frequently complained about Fiorentino's mandates, pointing to examples such as the implementation of the Learning Focused Strategies system that many educators found wasteful. Browning also liked to talk about the FADSS report that highlighted how Fiorentino's top-down approach hindered the district.

He said he would hire professionals, trust them and hold them accountable.

Most people in the district welcomed his approach. But there also was some angst, particularly after Browning made some small but telling comments.

For instance, after revealing plans to merge the student services and special education departments, Browning said, "Let the rumors begin."

The words unnerved employees who didn't understand the plan or help create it. They had to trust that Browning was headed in the right direction.

• • •

After four months with little pushback, Browning hit a wall with his Moore Mickens proposal.

Community leaders quickly voiced their displeasure with closing the campus, which held historic meaning as Pasco's first permanent school for black children. Students and staff of the various alternative and special needs programs at the campus added to the opposition.

With antipathy to the idea growing, Browning relented. He said he'd look elsewhere to cut $1 million in spending.

"The juice isn't worth the squeeze," he said. "You have to be flexible."

The gentle art of persuasion also must come into play, retired longtime administrator Mary Giella later reminded assistant superintendent Ray Gadd.

"Before we closed St. Joe Elementary School, we offered San Antonio Elementary School in an alternative," Giella wrote in an email to Gadd. "We had tried to close St. Joe Elementary School before offering an alternative, and the School Board and Superintendent had a crowd similar to the one you had at Moore Mickens. … St. Joe remained open. Give them a better reason to go, and they will."

Gadd admitted the administration needed to slow down.

"Amelia, Kurt and I may have been a little overzealous trying to fill a budget gap, give teachers a raise and do what we thought was best for kids," he wrote. Some less(ons) are learned the hard way."

Browning said he still believes in closing Moore Mickens and moving its programs.

"However, by waiving it off for about a year, we can work with the community and come up with a plan," he said.

• • •

Efforts to reduce spending by $23 million also led to Browning's second communication struggle.

Browning had principals tell media specialists and literacy coaches early March 7 that the district would eliminate their jobs next school year. Principals showed Browning's podcast to their faculty later in the day.

The goal, in addition to saving $5 million, was to transform the way the district provides media services. By announcing the concept early, Browning said, employees would get plenty of time to prepare.

Browning also encouraged email feedback, and took copious notes as dozens aired their concerns at the board's March 19 meeting. One speaker pointedly praised Browning for inviting the input, noting that few expected similar treatment under the past administration.

Still, they said that Browning's team had not adequately informed or consulted them.

"It's easy to disagree with something you think is a bad idea, especially when you don't know what the plan is to fill in the gaps," United School Employees of Pasco vice president Kenny Blankenship told the School Board. "We have asked for meetings with the district to find out the vision for the future."

Browning later stressed that he has no plans to close media centers, or to fire people. Rather, he said, the goal is to have a smaller number of specialists train teachers how to better integrate media and technology into their lessons.

"We are rethinking the way we provide services," he said.

Maybe the concept is a good one, said Gulf Middle School media specialist Marilyn Shafer. "But you can't have a child turn 1 and say, 'Stand up and start walking.' That is what they are doing to teachers. … They need a five-year course of action to move toward the goal."

Larson has spent time since meeting with some but not all of the affected groups, giving them more details. She said she wished she did so before the podcast, as most questions get answered with fewer worries.

"We need to improve our communication," she said, "especially when you're trying to change the way the system is structured."

Browning said he expected some resistance from the employees whose "ox is being gored." That's where complaints often arise.

He lamented, though, the notion that more attention might be paid to his method than his effort.

"If I have a character flaw, it is that I am not a very patient person," he said. "We have to have a sense of urgency" when it comes to improving performance.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

Browning's plans for Pasco schools put his communication pledge to the test 03/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 11:56am]

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