Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Kurt Browning files to run for Pasco schools superintendent

DADE CITY — Kurt Browning is in.

After making his final commute home from Tallahassee on Thursday evening, Browning filed papers Friday morning launching his campaign to oust Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino.

The county's former longtime elections supervisor officially resigned as secretary of state this week, after certifying the Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary. He will take on Fiorentino in the Aug. 14 GOP primary.

Browning said he did not quit the job specifically to run for superintendent. But he said he felt compelled to seek the post after many residents across the county asked him to do so.

"I am more than flattered in the confidence they have in me that we can fix the district," Browning said. "The voters are going to have a choice."

Fiorentino already has launched her re-election bid, holding her first fundraiser in early February. She is campaigning on an eight-year history of successes, including steadily improving graduation and dropout rates, academic performance that consistently rates above the state average, and stable finances despite budget struggles.

She is also touting ideas for the future, including the creation of magnet schools and a district-level administrative reorganization.

Browning suggested Fiorentino has had time to do such things, yet has not. Rather, he said, she has created a district that is "mediocre." It was listed 34th of 67 districts in the governor's recent ranking based on school standardized test scores, and the district itself earned a B.

"Why should we be satisfied with average?" he said. "We can do so much more."

Browning highlighted some of the most prominent criticisms of Fiorentino's administration: an insistence on applying the same instructional methods to all schools, and a leadership style that some consider harsh and micromanaging.

School Board members recently blasted Fiorentino for poor communication and other leadership shortcomings listed in a Florida Association of District School Superintendents report.

"When you look at how we educate our kids, I don't think we need to take a cookie-cutter approach to it," Browning said, tackling a key complaint that others have leveled against the Learning Focused Strategies system that Fiorentino adopted a few years ago.

He noted that schools as varied as Lacoochee Elementary, serving an impoverished black and Hispanic community, and Trinity Oaks Elementary, serving an upscale suburban area, have different needs to succeed.

"I think our schools need to have the flexibility to reach these kids and to teach these kids," Browning said.

One knock on Browning is his lack of experience in education administration.

"Running a district the size of Pasco, I don't believe it takes you being an educator," he said. "What it takes is someone who understands what it takes to motivate people."

Browning said his strategy is to surround himself with capable people, give them a vision and direction, empower them to work toward that vision and hold them accountable. He likened it to his five-year stint at the Department of State, where he knew little about libraries, corporations and historic preservation before taking over the agency overseeing those areas.

He left with mostly accolades.

"The school district is no different," Browning said.

Browning does not face an easy path to the superintendent's office.

He has not appeared on a local ballot since 2004, and has worked in Tallahassee since 2006. Fiorentino, by contrast, has been a fixture within the county during that time.

Browning also has come under fire as a "double dipper" because he took a salary as secretary of state after retiring from that position in 2010 to accept a pension under Florida's early retirement program. If he accepts the superintendent's $137,800 salary along with his pension, "people are going to take a look at that," said Pasco GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting.

If he won the seat, Browning said, he would draw a $1 salary for the first year.

"I don't want that to be a distraction. I don't want the superintendent to make it an issue," Browning said. "The issue is education for our kids."

Then there's the matter of the office that Browning is leaving.

"I'm not sure if he will carry some baggage in having worked for Rick Scott," Lynne Webb, president of the local school employee union, said before Browning officially launched his campaign. "Rick Scott is not especially popular, particularly among educators."

Webb also said Fiorentino's eight years of experience in leading the district could benefit her.

Pasco Republican Party chairman Randy Maggard said he expects supporters to line up behind each candidate within the next week. "I think the camps will divide quite quickly," he said. Bunting added that the county could take an east-west split, with Fiorentino collecting support on the west side and Browning enjoying an east Pasco base.

If any other party or write-in candidates qualify for this race, the Republican primary will be closed. That would mean only registered Republicans would select between Browning, Fiorentino and any other GOP hopefuls. So far there is one other Republican to file for the job, contractor Kenneth Benson of Moon Lake.

Staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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