Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Kurt Browning on short list of high-profile superintendents

LAND O'LAKES — Kurt Browning hadn't been superintendent of Pasco County schools a month when he got the request: Would he come to Tallahassee to talk policy with House and Senate education committee staffers?

"I remember them saying to me, first thing: 'We're not here to talk. We're here to listen,' " Browning said.

And they weren't the only ones seeking Browning's advice on issues such as teacher evaluations, accountability testing and academic standards. Among those with interest were the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (which is run by a leading Democratic state senator), Patricia Levesque (who leads Jeb Bush's education foundation) and Gov. Rick Scott.

The fact that he still was getting his feet wet as an education leader, having spent virtually his entire career in elections and related topics, mattered little. Browning had quickly risen to the short list of superintendents to call, alongside such veteran educators as Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia and Miami-Dade's Alberto Carvalho.

Only one other new superintendent — Nikolai Vitti of Duval County — became a player so quickly, and he had been deputy state chancellor for school improvement before serving as an assistant superintendent in Miami-Dade.

Why were some of the state's acknowledged movers and shakers in setting education policy so interested in hearing from a newcomer to the system?

Connections.

Though new to the world of education, Browning was no stranger to these leaders. He served as secretary of state to two Republican governors, including Scott, and held a high profile as a leading elections supervisor for two decades before that.

A spokeswoman for Levesque made clear that the prior relationship mattered.

"When it comes to teacher evaluations or other education-related issues in Florida, the Foundation values the input of those working on the ground, in schools," said Allison Aubuchon via email. She's the deputy communications director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

"Feedback from superintendents, especially those in larger Florida districts, is always helpful. Patricia emailed a handful of superintendents whom she knows personally and knew would be willing to offer some thoughtful feedback."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who backed Browning's election campaign, seconded the endorsement.

"Kurt is universally respected by both parties and is considered the personification of a public servant," Weatherford said via email. "I am glad to call him an advisor and a friend."

Browning was quick to admit that such ties propelled him. Being friends with the House speaker, and close to Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg (also from Pasco County), as well as being a former secretary of state, made it easier for him to not only speak but also be heard, he said.

"If Will and John weren't there, maybe I'd be a new superintendent just hanging in the shadows," Browning added, acknowledging that some people might be seeking to get to those lawmakers through him, too. "I think I'm in the right place at the right time."

Browning mentioned another wrinkle that might give him added credibility: He's not an educator.

He recalled how, as an elections supervisor, lawmakers would roll their eyes when he brought election-related concerns to them. They viewed the supervisors as too tied to the issues and therefore lacking perspective.

As a superintendent, he suggested, he hadn't had time to "drink the Kool-Aid."

"You have somebody coming in from outside education," he said. "In large part they want me to validate what's been said."

Connections also kept previous superintendent Heather Fiorentino in the loop long after she left Tallahassee, where she served as a Republican lawmaker for six years. She frequently received calls from former colleagues, then-Gov. Bush and others to review bills and suggest improvements.

She got requests to testify before the Legislature as recently as her final year as superintendent, eight years removed from the House.

"A lot of it was because I did chair Education, and I had a background, and I did bills for Jeb," Fiorentino said.

She noted that most superintendents get calls from their local legislators on a variety of education issues. But the "big dogs" from key counties and bigger districts regularly have gotten more statewide attention for their positions, she added.

Browning recognized that his soapbox owed as much to circumstance as anything. Still, he said, he'd be foolish to turn it down.

"I just see it as what I do in the normal course of business," he said. "You have to be engaged."

Of course, connections go only so far, as being known is only as valuable as those who know you.

At Monday's State Board of Education meeting, for example, the board heard a report on the lengthy list of problems Browning and his staff found implementing new academic standards.

Asked why the staff turned to Browning for his views on this weighty subject, state education commissioner Tony Bennett, fresh from Indiana, said he wasn't sure. He said he had heard that Browning complained to the board in December, and "we were just responding."

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

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