NEW PORT RICHEY — Decorum reigned until close to the end, when the debate moderators asked the Pasco school superintendent candidates whether it was necessary to have a background in education.
Then the rules went out the window.
"This district is a business. I don't think we necessarily need an educator to run the Pasco County School District," said challenger Kurt Browning, who has taught government at Pasco-Hernando Community College, where the third night of candidate debates took place Thursday night.
What the district needs, Browning said, is someone who can motivate and inspire.
"I've been a leader all my life," he said. "Ask anybody at the Florida Department of State," where Browning served five years as secretary.
Two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino pounced.
"If you're showing leadership, why did you quit your job twice?" she asked, referring to Browning's 2010 departure and return to the post eight months later, only to then quit again about a year later. "That doesn't look like leadership to me."
"I was going to be nice tonight," said an unruffled Browning.
He then explained that he had entered the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) in 2005 while serving as Pasco's elections supervisor. His official retirement date arrived five years later, while serving as secretary of state in the Charlie Crist administration. About eight months later, he returned as head of the department at the request of newly elected Gov. Rick Scott. He left again in February and filed to run for Pasco superintendent. He pledged if elected to give up his salary the first year so the campaign can "focus on the issues."
"It's public. Everybody got something in the mail on it," he said, referring to a campaign flier from Fiorentino that accused Browning of being a "double dipper" who was about to go for a third scoop.
He said he decided to leave the office because the commute kept him away from his wife, who told him last Christmas that she cried each Sunday when her husband left for Tallahassee.
"Let's talk about how we're going to lead this district for the benefit for our kids," he said.
As evidence a change at the top is needed, Browning cited declines in FCAT scores and the district's slip from an overall grade of A to a C under Fiorentino's watch.
"How come other districts maintain grades or either A or Bs on FCAT 2.0, and we go from an A to a B to a C?" he said.
The remark drew a scolding from Fiorentino.
"You have a roomful of educators in here," she said, pointing to an auditorium of people, including some wearing Browning T-shirts. "You shouldn't minimize the job they do. The standards have changed, the tests have changed, the scores have changed."
She said the district is "at the top" in the Tampa Bay area when it comes to end-of-course exams in algebra and biology.
"Are you saying our students became illiterate overnight?" she said.
She called the FCAT scores "just a blip on the screen" and pointed out a 1 percent dropout rate that is the result of educators' "hard work."
She said teacher pay reductions and furloughs are the result of a poor economy and that her team of administrators have worked to avoid cuts that directly affect schools.
"I know it hurts," she said addressing the teachers in the audience. "It's your calling that you're here. If we stick together as a team and do it the right way, eventually we can make you whole."
Permission to serve
Voters also heard Thursday night from three Republicans vying for the state House seat in District 36.
GOP activist Jim Mathieu and electrical contractor Michael Kennedy each took aim at state Sen. Mike Fasano, who is seeking the redistricted House seat after being forced out of a previous House seat and a Senate seat by term limits.
"Politicians should respect those laws," Kennedy. "They shouldn't look for loopholes. Career politicians are building relationships with corporations."
Fasano countered that the people he's building relationships with are his constituents, "the little guy and gal" who need jobs or who are forced from their homes because they can't afford insurance premiums.
"I'm asking permission" to continue to serve them, he said.
Mathieu attacked the "good old boy network" and said "that's the leader sitting over there on the right." He said Fasano's longevity in the Legislature allowed him to take advantage of a loophole and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a fund called a committee of continuous existence. They allow lawmakers to rake in unlimited amounts from influential donors even though the state caps contributions directly to candidates at $500 per person.
"See where the money came from and see where the money went," Mathieu said. "Follow the money." So far the fund, the Committee for Floridians for Principled Government, has raised $629,744.07, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Fasano noted that he's independent and has taken on utilities, the Florida Public Service Commission and Citizens' Insurance. He said he also fought an effort to privatize state prison operations, which cost him a committee chairmanship.
"I wear that as a badge of honor," he said.
Because there is no Democratic candidate, the winner of the primary will win the House seat. A write-in candidate, Joseph Verola, also filed, so only registered Republicans may vote.