As candidates qualified for the 2020 ballot this summer, Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning appeared headed for a double-barreled challenge in what would be a Republican Party primary open to all voters.
Two district employees — principal David LaRoche and graduation enhancement teacher Cynthia Thompson — had announced their intention to run under the GOP banner, each aiming to oust the two-term incumbent. They argued he did not understand well enough what it means to work in a classroom. With no Democrat declared, the nation’s largest school system to elect its chief executive was on track for a late August conclusion.
At the last minute, though, Thompson dropped her party connection. She said she wanted to be viewed as an educator trying to better her district, not as a politician.
Thompson heads into the November general election looking to promote that message against Browning, who dispatched LaRoche by a 29-point margin.
She faces an uphill battle. She has no party apparatus to support her campaign, little name recognition, and a sliver of the money that the incumbent has collected.
Since the primary ended, Thompson reported receiving two $50 contributions, bringing her overall collection to just under $8,800. That included loans to herself for more than half that amount.
“My biggest problem is getting information out there,” she said. “They need to know there is a better way to do things.”
Browning, who has served in public office for four decades, received more than double that amount in the May reporting cycle alone. By mid-September, he had close to 40 times more money on hand than his opponent — and that didn’t include outside committee backing or the regular communication he has sent into homes as part of his daily job.
Still, he said, he’s taking nothing for granted. Eight years in office translates into eight years of decisions that could have angered people, after all, and there’s always an expected base of opposition to incumbents.
He’s counting on the majority of the public to view his tenure positively, focusing on things such as improved graduation rates, access to advanced programs, rising industrial certifications and expanded academic choices. He suggested those measures matter more than the district’s ranking in the state accountability points system — something he criticized his predecessor about when Pasco was higher on the list.
“I am very excited about what we are doing,” Browning said.
Hoping to generate interest in her campaign, Thompson has started planning open-air meet and greets, which she has previously avoided to keep with social distancing initiatives. She also began adding position and vision statements to her campaign website.
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This comes with slightly over a month until Election Day.
“I have been getting a lot of questions on where I stand on the issues,” Thompson said. “I felt like I needed to get it out there.”
Most recently, she set forth 10 goals for the district, suggesting it is “broken in a way only an educator can fix.” Her ideas include improving the district’s online education system, creating a safer work and learning environment, raising the graduation rate and providing more opportunities for students to prepare for a successful career.
Although these might sound like what the current administration is pursuing, Thompson said, “the problem is the plan that is in place is not working.”
She praised the concept of opening new technical schools, for instance, but contended the administration has implemented admission criteria that don’t benefit students who need such programs the most. The district also has not put instructional models in place that students can follow from elementary through middle into high school grades, she said, so the children can buy into the approaches knowing they won’t just disappear.
As her top priority, Thompson said she would work to improve employee morale, which she said has declined. That would include initiatives ranging from creating a culture of positive encouragement to building a budget around pay raises.
“When the union comes to me with what they want, I will do whatever I can to make that happen before anything else,” Thompson said.
She also talked about reevaluating leadership and programs at each school, and paying closer attention to students' environments to determine how those figure into their performance.
“Sometimes we need to stop and say, geometry is important, but the fact that you still can’t tie your shoes is more important,” she said. “We have to meet those basic needs. ... We need to be figuring out what are they actually going to benefit from.”
Browning, she said, has “got the politics down.” But with an educator in the superintendent’s chair, she said, “there’s so much more we can do.”
Browning questioned his challenger’s perspective. He acknowledged he did not teach in a school, but said over eight years he has come to understand the issues of public education, including during a stint as president of the state superintendents' association.
Where he needed support, he continued, he hired “highly capable people” with years of classroom experience. He built upon their insights with his own knowledge of managing institutions, understanding budgets, negotiating contracts and navigating politics.
The collection of those skills all came into play in running Pasco County’s largest employer, Browning said.
“I don’t think you need a teacher managing a $1.5 billion school district any more than you need a doctor running a hospital,” he said.
He stated that the school district is working on many of Thompson’s priorities. It has given raises, though sometimes tiny ones, every year he has been in office, Browning said.
It has been among the state’s first districts to launch social-emotional services for students, he added, and taken several steps to increase career and technical programs, including opening one technical high school and building another.
“We’ve made great gains,” Browning said. “We’re a stable district, both academically and financially.”
So far, the campaign has avoided the negativity that dotted the primary. Both candidates have focused on the issues and pointed out where they believe they could do better than the other.
Thompson suggested, for example, that the two-week delay in reopening schools in August could have been spent better preparing teachers and students for the new requirements and systems they would encounter.
Browning contended that Thompson has attempted to manufacture issues that don’t exist, pointing to her goal of developing a positive relationship with the School Board as one.
“The School Board is very collegial among themselves and with the superintendent,” he said, echoing the view of board members.
Among his priorities looking ahead, Browning said if reelected he wanted to continue progress on expanding access to programs, and said he would look for ways to renew emphasis on early literacy to coincide with the state’s new language arts materials adoption cycle.
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