Friday, April 20, 2018
Education

Browning's victory in Pasco schools superintendent's race hinged on three intangibles

LAND O'LAKES — Kurt Browning sat in his car outside his election party Tuesday night, repeatedly refreshing the Internet on his iPhone until the first batch of voting results appeared.

He wanted to see where he stood before facing his supporters.

Those tallies gave him a commanding lead over Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino — a 2-to-1 margin he maintained throughout the night as he cruised to victory with 65 percent of the vote.

"That's more votes than I ever thought I would receive," said Browning, who collected 20,320 votes as he won every precinct in the county.

"Not us," two backers replied.

In fact, since Browning entered the race for superintendent, he carried the air of the front-runner despite facing a two-term incumbent with a record of public service nearly as long as his own. Even with his big campaign account and the backing of many educators, though, Browning wasn't assured he'd get this far.

How did he get here?

Dissatisfaction with the status quo: Tight finances made times tough for the Pasco school district, which froze pay and eliminated jobs to make ends meet. Morale fell. That alone did not appear to be the tipping point, though, or School Board member Joanne Hurley might have lost her re-election bid. (She kept her seat Tuesday night with 68 percent of the vote.)

Adding to the discontent was a sense — bolstered by climate surveys and reports — that Fiorentino and her leadership team did not allow professionals to do their jobs without interference. They mandated teaching programs that didn't have buy-in, for instance, and second-guessed principals' decisions.

A steady stream of stories about miscues in the district also poured forth.

That created an atmosphere where Browning's call for new leadership resonated.

Relentless campaigning: Discontent can't win elections, though. Teachers were unhappy in 2008, as well. But a poorly financed and less organized opponent couldn't beat Fiorentino.

Browning credited volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls and otherwise helped carry his candidacy. His wife, Kathy, added that Browning courted the vote 16 hours a day for six months.

Some Fiorentino supporters saw other factors at play.

"Kurt Browning is your east Pasco money, and the east Pasco good old boys are supporting him," said longtime Fiorentino friend Patti Biddle.

But Browning backers all over the county responded, filling his campaign coffers with tens of thousands of dollars more than Fiorentino, allowing him to send mailers and advertise on television. He also took advantage of free social media sites, posting his views regularly on Facebook and Twitter.

"I decided to put those out there so a larger number of folks would be able to see them, other than the few folks that attend a campaign event," Browning said. "And you can't put that kind of detail on a flier."

Ardian Zika, a Land O'Lakes banker who served as Browning's campaign finance chairman, said it wasn't always easy to get contributions, but Browning inspired people to give. "I believe in his leadership," Zika said. "He's a transformational leader."

Reputation: Wanting Fiorentino out was one thing. Wanting the person seeking to replace her was another. And like Zika, many Pasco residents viewed Browning as the right person.

A lifelong Pasco resident, Browning had strong ties across the county. People still remembered him fondly from his 26 years as elections supervisor, a job in which he gained statewide acclaim. That reputation earned him enough respect for two Republican governors to ask him to serve as secretary of state.

"We need a kind person with a good heart who knows how to work with people," said Jeanne Larkin Weightman, a former School Board member. "We have that in Kurt Browning."

Fiorentino attacked Browning's record. In separate mailers, she pointed out that he was a "double dipper" by taking a state salary while also collecting his state retirement pension, and that he hadn't always been a Republican. Her accusations didn't resonate.

"One of the things about Kurt that this community knows is that he's a man of character and he has a record of service that is unparalleled," said former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, a Browning backer. "I think that won the day in the end."

• • •

Despite fighting hard for re-election, Fiorentino took her defeat in stride.

"This is a voter decision and I accept that," she said. "It's always nice to be on the winning end, but this is the voters' decision. God has a plan."

She pledged to ensure a smooth transition. She tried to reassure crying supporters at her party Tuesday night.

"Remember the focus is on the children," Fiorentino said. "It's been a great eight years. We have a lot to be proud of. And don't worry. You're stuck with me till November, so hang tight."

Browning, meanwhile, has a lot of house work to catch up on. He didn't pause between resigning as secretary of state and launching his superintendent's campaign, so he expects to spend time on a list of chores.

Then he'll turn his focus on the school district. He plans to evaluate all district personnel and programs. He wants to lessen restrictions on employees, so they can do the jobs they're hired to do with less interference.

Browning said he hopes that morale will improve as a result, reducing stress and ultimately leading to better academic performance.

"People have said, 'Boy, you've got a lot of headaches ahead of you,' " Browning told supporters. "That's all right. We can fix this thing."

Staff writer Michele Miller contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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