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Pasco superintendent privately wavers on plan to eliminate valedictorians

Superintendent Kurt Browning is wavering on a plan to eliminate valedictorians at schools like Zephyrhills High, where, from left, Tara Preslyn Braxton, Alana Maria Knight-Sheppard and Madison Jaclyn Smith graduated June 1. The Pasco County School Board will take up the question at its Aug. 12 meeting.

KATIE LAMONT | Times

Superintendent Kurt Browning is wavering on a plan to eliminate valedictorians at schools like Zephyrhills High, where, from left, Tara Preslyn Braxton, Alana Maria Knight-Sheppard and Madison Jaclyn Smith graduated June 1. The Pasco County School Board will take up the question at its Aug. 12 meeting.

Viewers of the conservative Fox and Friends national news show have a message for Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning: Don't do away with valedictorians.

"You are sending the wrong message to our youth," Mike Hall of New Port Richey wrote to Browning after a Saturday segment on the superintendent's proposal. "Excellence should be recognized. I would rather hire a smart person as any employer will tell you. … This sounds like the liberal left wing thinking."

Gina Seidel, who did not include where she lived, went even further.

"Maybe (you) just want dumbed down, stupid students or maybe your teachers suck and can't teach," she wrote. "Americans are sick and tired of people like you. YOU ARE A DISGRACE!!!"

The attacks prompted some soul searching by the superintendent, a Republican who is no stranger to controversy. He has faced criticism over his plans to close an alternative center serving a poor community in east Pasco and his mandate that football coaches end sideline team prayers, among other issues.

Sometimes he's held firm. Other times, he's backed off.

His favorite saying when easing off the throttle is, "The juice isn't worth the squeeze." That's what Browning expressed in a Sunday night journal entry he sent to his mentor, retired Seminole County superintendent Bill Vogel.

In it, Browning talked about his thought process in eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian titles at high schools while retaining class ranks and adding the Latin honors of summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude to commencement ceremonies. The idea, he suggested, is to give more students incentives to excel, because they would have more opportunities for recognition.

The change also would take into consideration the many types of classes students take, some of which don't provide course grades in a time frame that allows for fair and proper grade-point calculations.

But the naysayers have painted the district's position as akin to giving everyone a participation trophy while trying to avoid the few parents and students who want to fight over who's No. 1. Fox and Friends anchor Clayton Morris spoke about "whitewashing our academic standards."

Hitting closer to home, Chuck Isbell of Tallahassee suggested in his email: "Crap let's just take the National Championships away from the Gators. I will let you tell Coach (Billy) Donovan that (one)."

Browning, who is out of state on vacation, indicated that he may be wavering ahead of the final hearing before the School Board on Aug. 12.

"Many of the emails that I have received have been very hateful and demeaning yet I know in my heart that it's the right thing to do," he wrote to Vogel. "Over the coming weeks, I will need to decide to either hunker down and fight the battle or find an exit strategy that saves face for the School Board and me. I want to do what's right for our students and families."

Vogel responded that restraint might be best.

"You have tackled some tough issues. This is one that, as you suggest, might be one to back off on," he wrote.

Browning has not made a final decision. But School Board members, also barraged by Fox viewers, have started putting his recommendation under even closer scrutiny.

Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she did not believe the proposal would dumb down the system, but she also did not see how simply voiding the valedictorian and salutatorian titles while keeping class ranks would make a major difference. The district policy already provides for Latin honors, although many schools simply ignore them.

If the problem arises from perceived unfairness in grade-point calculations, she said, the district should address those rules instead.

No changes to the calculations appear in the superintendent's proposal.

Board vice chairman Steve Luikart had similar questions about how the changes would be implemented. Without more details and explanations, he said, "I can't vote on it the way it is now."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

>>fast facts

Battle continues

The debate over whether Pasco County schools should keep the valedictorian title for its top graduates heated up over the weekend, as Fox and Friends weighed in. See the segment at tbtim.es/vals.

Pasco superintendent privately wavers on plan to eliminate valedictorians 07/07/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 12:44pm]
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