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Browning rolls to victory in Pasco school superintendent race

LAND O'LAKES — Kurt Browning stared intently at the screen displaying election results at his campaign party Tuesday night, refusing to accept what looked like an easy win as Pasco County's next schools superintendent.

"I want to see 110 precincts up there, or get a phone call," Browning said with 106 precincts reporting.

He stood at 64 percent of votes cast, compared to incumbent Heather Fiorentino's 28 percent.

Moments later, he got both. As the screen refreshed to show the vote complete, with supporters cheering around him, Browning dashed for the door, buzzing phone in hand.

"Thank you Heather," he said outside the Wilderness Lake Preserve Lodge room.

They spoke for a few minutes. He pressed off the phone.

"She just conceded," Browning said. "It's done."

With only token write-in opposition in the general election, Browning is expected to take the superintendent's seat in November. The swearing date has not been scheduled.

He planned to sleep in this morning, the first time since returning home from Tallahassee and announcing his campaign.

Fiorentino, 54, a two-term superintendent and former state legislator, will continue in the position in the interim. "We've got to continue working with Kurt to make this a smooth transition," she said. "His learning curve is going to be a steep one. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's going to be steep for anyone coming in."

She thanked her staff for all the hard work in continuing to make the Pasco school district better, saying she was proud to have had the chance to work with "the finest educators in the state."

Browning, 53, spent 26 years as Pasco's supervisor of elections before serving as Florida's secretary of state under governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott. He resigned in February amid widespread rumors that he would run for Pasco superintendent. He announced his bid the morning after he officially left his state post, saying he had been encouraged by residents from all corners of the county to run.

He quickly found a groundswell of support, nabbing high profile endorsements — including some of Fiorentino's former backers. He collected almost four times as much in campaign contributions, which allowed him to spread his message of change.

He spent $30,814 in the final three-week reporting period before Election Day — just about $1,100 less than Fiorentino received in donations during the entire race. Running against an incumbent is an uphill battle, said Browning, who got his word out on television, through the mail and via social networking.

Browning's relentless message was one of a district that needs new leadership. Citing an district-funded report from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, he spoke of a system nearly paralyzed by leaders afraid to act without permission from Fiorentino's office.

He said under his watch, the professionals would get the freedom to do their jobs as they see fit, with him holding them accountable for strong results. And, he argued, the district needed better results, pointing to Pasco's middle-of-the-road FCAT results in comparison to the rest of the state.

While trying to keep focused on education issues, Browning also had to fend off Fiorentino's attacks. In two separate mailers, she pointed out that he was a "double dipper" by taking a state salary while also collecting his state retirement pension, and that he hadn't always been a Republican.

She also accused him of "allowing" 1,800 illegal voters to register in Florida while he was secretary of state, a claim that was not true. The state never had a list of illegal voters, just one of potential names to review further. Further, the secretary of state does not register voters, according to state law.

Browning defended his reputation, but did not stray far from his themes of improving leadership and academic results in the school district.

The response was strong, including among current and former district employees.

"It was getting stale," retired teacher Kate Beeman said of Fiorentino's leadership. "Kurt is common sense."

Food services director Rick Kurtz said he was happy change is coming.

"Clearly I'm here because of change," Kurtz said. "I miss the days when directors were trusted."

Moon Lake handyman Ken Benson finished a distant third with 7 percent of the vote.

Staff writer Michele Miller contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

Browning rolls to victory in Pasco school superintendent race 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 10:08pm]

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