Despite discontent that led two employees to challenge him, Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning appeared well on his way to a third term in office as vote tallies showed him with a strong lead over challenger Cynthia Thompson.
The Republican incumbent led no-party candidate Thompson, a Bayonet Point Middle School graduation enhancement teacher, with 65 percent of the vote Tuesday with all precincts reporting and some mail ballots still uncounted.
Historically, the margins have shifted little from the initial reports in Pasco County’s local races. This year could be different though, given the high use of mail-in ballots, which could be submitted until 7 p.m. and must be verified.
Browning said he felt comfortable in anticipating the numbers would hold and he would win.
“I think the voters like the direction that the district is headed,” he said in an interview from his home, where he was monitoring results. “I think it’s just confirmation of what we’ve done for the last eight years.”
Browning acknowledged that some people were not happy with his time in office. He attributed that to his making changes over time, and many people don’t like change.
“We’re not slowing down,” he said, noting plans to convene an equity committee among upcoming activities.
He also planned to bring together senior staff next week to begin discussions about “what they want the district to look like four years from now.”
After eight years in office, Browning, 61, ran squarely on a record that he said put the school district in a better position than when he took over. For instance, he pointed to efforts to improve equity and access to accelerated course work, which resulted in recognition from the College Board and Cambridge International organizations. He also spoke of expanded parental and student choice, including a new technical high school and the district’s first magnet schools, and rising graduation rates.
With his lengthy tenure, however, came discontent from families and employees who found reasons to complain. Closing schools, reassigning students to different campuses and persistent crowding topped those lists.
Critics observed that the district was faring worse on some of the same state performance measures that Browning used to blast his predecessor.
The situation was such that two employees — Thompson and former high school principal David LaRoche — decided to seek the top spot, arguing that the district would benefit from having someone with classroom experience leading the charge.
Notably, both came from northwest Pasco, where the district has struggled over several years to improve academic offerings to students. Other more high-profile candidates had been expected to join the campaign, until the advent of the coronavirus pandemic put challengers at a distinct disadvantage.
Opportunities to raise money and meet voters dried up, while the incumbent had the opportunity to use district resources to provide information about the system’s response and its wide range of services, such as free food distribution and technology support for remote learning.
Browning noted that marshaling all the activities through the pandemic required more than knowing how to teach students. It meant having an understanding of budgets, logistics, employee management and more.
Thompson, 39, made her first run for public office on the idea that she could learn the operations side, but already understood the most important part of the school district — teaching and learning. She also argued that, with morale sinking, having a teacher in charge could rebuild support.
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