LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning's recent "butt out" letter to the Florida Department of Education has begun to yield some results.
Since Browning told education commissioner Tony Bennett that he wanted a state accountability team to stay out of Lacoochee Elementary School, department officials have contacted the district several times seeking input on how to improve their working relationship. The department also launched an online survey to gather feedback from districts on ways to better their interactions.
"They are changing their approach to coaching and instruction," Browning said after meeting last week with Pam Craig, director of the department's regional accountability office. "Their approach is more collegial. It is more collaborative. She actually said, 'We will only be at Lacoochee when there is something to do.'"
Browning argued that the state's assistance at Lacoochee over two years raised anxiety more than test scores. The school faces its third consecutive D grade.
"I told (Craig) I want to get away from the sterile, high-stakes environment when they come into any of my schools," Browning said. "She gets that."
State law requires the department to take an active role in implementing accountability laws, though, so stepping away completely is not an option. But the goal must be to serve the districts and schools, Bennett said, and not simply to push them around.
He welcomed Browning's criticism, and in fact invited any superintendent to convey concerns to him. Making changes to the state's assistance model is key to getting a positive outcome for students, he added.
"This is pretty new stuff, so trying to develop the model as we move is the right thing to do," Bennett said. "That requires some discussion and some give and take, with the understanding that the DOE is not the largest school district in the state and we can't behave as such."
Browning said he appreciated the more flexible approach.
"This is a district-managed turnaround," he stressed, making clear that the district — not the state — holds ultimate responsibility for the success at Lacoochee and the other schools that face an overhaul if they don't see student outcomes improve.
So long as state leaders accept that basic fact, he said, their participation is fine.
"The state is going to be at the table with us," Browning said. "I'm okay with that."
Some State Board of Education members have called for the state to have a bigger chair at the table, though.
At the board's meeting Tuesday in Tampa, vice chairman John Padget lamented that districts take too long to remove principals from schools that earn D or F grades. Current law doesn't mandate such action until a school has received three consecutive D's, or two straight F's.
Even then, districts can get a waiver for extenuating circumstances, on a case by case basis. Padget said one D or F is enough to warrant a change.
"I just think we should look for ways, when we have a problem school ... to encourage the local superintendent and his staff to be very aggressive on corrective action," Padget said. "This is too bureaucratic and it takes too long."
Board chairman Gary Chartrand mentioned an even more intrusive possibility of state takeovers, as Louisiana allows.
"Maybe that is part of the solution" for Florida, Chartrand said.
Browning said the state should take more responsibility for its existing role before trying to do more. The system doesn't hold the state to the same standard as the districts, he said.
"I get very frustrated that we've had a DA team in (Lacoochee) for two years ... but we're going to head to our third D," Browning said. "Where's the accountability on the part of the state?"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.