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Pasco school district sees changes under new superintendent in 2013

LAND O'LAKES

January marked the beginning of an overhaul of the Pasco County School District. Just over a month into his term, superintendent Kurt Browning kicked off the year by revamping the administration to reflect his priority of a district office working to support campus learning. After reorganizing departments and shifting personnel, Browning expanded his restructuring effort.

Some ideas worked, and others floundered.

Among the first announcements was a plan to accelerate the reconstruction of Quail Hollow and Shady Hills elementary schools. That meant the closure of both for a few years, with the children attending elsewhere.

Some parents in the Shady Hills area protested loudly, especially after learning their kids would go to Crews Lake Middle School, which would be reconfigured as a K-8 building. They fretted about having their youngsters on buses and in hallways with teenagers.

The fears evaporated, though, after the families saw the school in action in the fall.

Browning didn't have as much luck with his proposal to shutter the Moore-Mickens Education Center in Dade City. Students attending the adult and alternative programs there criticized the idea as harmful to the low-income community that depends upon the campus.

The superintendent withdrew this recommendation as residents complained to the School Board.

Browning faced even stronger resistance to a plan to eliminate school media specialists and literacy coaches as part of a budget-saving measure tied to a new instructional model. Media specialists and their supporters pressured the board to reject the change, which lacked specifics at the time.

Board members sought assurances that schools would continue to staff libraries, ultimately approving the concept. Some media specialists, literacy coaches and technology specialists (who were added to the strategy late) returned to the classroom, while some moved into newly created district jobs and others left the district.

Schools still were feeling their way through the new set-up as the year wound to a close.

Amid these high-profile disputes, Browning aimed to keep efforts focused on improving morale, which he contended in turn would result in better academic outcomes.

He worked to settle a simmering teacher grievance over working conditions, promising more time for planning and less for testing. Some complaints remain, but are more muted.

He and the board pressed to give all employees raises, a goal that was aided by the state Legislature's budget. He shifted several school principals, as well.

Among them was the removal of Connerton Elementary School's controversial principal, who had generated many complaints during her tenure.

Browning dismissed Anna Falcone amid accusations that she tried to access confidential climate survey responses despite warnings not to do so.

Other changes also came throughout the year.

After complaining the district did not offer students ample education options, Browning convened a choice advisory committee and gave the green light to several new programs, including the Cambridge diploma model at Pasco middle and high schools, an aeronautics academy at Sunlake High and a STEM magnet for a planned new Sanders Elementary.

The Sanders project is part of the district's accelerated building plan, sped up by a resurgence in enrollment growth after years of static numbers. Other projects put into a bond, sold at the end of the year, include a new elementary school in Wesley Chapel.

Browning additionally captured wide attention with his strong stands on hot issues.

He ordered high school football coaches to stop the longtime practice of leading players in prayer at games and practices, saying district employees should not promulgate religion. He agreed to propose changes to honor roll criteria after a middle school mom complained that her son didn't deserve the honor after earning a D in a class.

After planning to violate the state class size amendment, he took advantage of a new state loophole to evade the penalties by designating all campuses as "schools of choice" — a move that generated calls from several other interested districts.

And he was tapped to lead a committee of superintendents fighting new state dual enrollment funding laws, after challenging Pasco-Hernando Community College over fees he found unacceptable. (The district abandoned that battle.)

Several key issues remain as the district embarks on 2014.

It is still working to implement the Common Core State Standards, training educators and preparing students even as leaders pressure the state to delay its transition to a new accountability model.

Officials are trying to revise the district's teacher evaluations, to make them more useful for growth in performance and less punitive. They're devising local tests, as well, so that each teacher can be rated based on their own students' work, as lawmakers recently required.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Pasco school district sees changes under new superintendent in 2013 12/31/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 5:36pm]
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