The Pasco School District is at a crossroads. Many of the challenges it faces are forced upon it by shrinking budgets and procedural mandates sent from Tallahassee, but superintendent Heather Fiorentino's mismanagement has escalated the unrest among faculty, administrators and within the business community.
The district — a 9,300-employee, $475 million operation that educates 67,000 children — needs new leadership and the most qualified candidate is Kurt Browning, the former Florida secretary of state who also was the longtime supervisor of elections in Pasco County. The Aug. 14 Republican primary also includes Moon Lake handyman Kenneth Benson, 54, an unrealistic candidate basing his campaign on classroom prayer. The winner of this three-person race is scheduled to be on the November ballot against two write-in candidates, one of whom already said he will withdraw after the primary.
The performance of Fiorentino, 54, a former classroom teacher and state legislator, has been a major disappointment. She lacked management experience when she first won the office and has failed, in eight years, to develop the administrative skills necessary for such an important job.
Her argumentative and intimidating micro-management helped shred a district-level leadership team and provoked discord among school prinicipals. An outside consultant documented the fallout last year in a highly critical report. In it, Fiorentino's subordinates characterized her as an inflexible manager stifling innovation and creativity. Employees described her as a person of "strong will … who is willing to exercise that trait, verbally and frequently.'' Principals said their input was sought, but ignored.
Instead of immediately answering a call for personal growth, the superintendent disputed the findings and failed to adequately address the contents of the report. Likewise, highly publicized squabbles over textbook purchases, proposed impact fee cuts and an aborted attempt to build new district headquarters shows an administration frequently flummoxed and out-of-touch with the concerns of its employees and the public.
The stellar career of Browning, 53, displays no such ineptness. He gained statewide acclaim for the way he ran the Pasco elections office for 26 years and he left in 2006 to become secretary of state and to manage elections for all of Florida. His strong administrative performance and his master's degree in public administration help mute the one valid criticism from Fiorentino that Browning lacks a professional background in education.
Browning is a decisive leader who will not vacillate. He promises a more collaborate decision-making approach to replace the top-down management of the current administration. He wants to expand school choices and notes correctly the current administration was slow to investigate magnet programs.
"We're in a paralysis,'' he says of the public school system.
He is right. A culture change is needed to ensure quality schooling for Pasco County's children, and to better the work environment so thoughtful, creative employees can excel and meet the educational challenges in front of them.
In the Republican primary for Pasco school superintendent, the Times strongly recommends Kurt Browning.