After nearly eight years on the job, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning says he hasn’t accomplished all he set out to do for improving the school system.
That’s why he has decided to seek a third term leading Florida’s 10th-largest district. Pasco County also is the biggest school district in the nation to elect rather than appoint its chief executive.
“I’ll be filing next week,” Browning said. “There’s still issues that need to be addressed, things to be completed.”
Topping his list is the continued expansion of academic options within the district schools.
When Browning took over the system in late 2012, after defeating incumbent Heather Fiorentino with nearly 65 percent of the vote, Pasco had a small number of choice programs — primarily International Baccalaureate at Gulf and Land O’Lakes high schools, a handful of career academies and a couple of self-contained gifted units.
Since then, the district has launched Cambridge in feeder patterns on the east and west sides, expanded the IB program into a few middle and elementary campuses, implemented STEM magnet programs within two middle schools and opened full magnet schools at Sanders Memorial Elementary and Krinn Technical High. The district is working to add Cambridge and IB programs into more schools, and plans to create at least two more magnet schools.
“I want to see more choice in our system,” Browning said.
He said he also wants to continue providing more professional growth opportunities for teachers, as the district did with the addition of early release days this year. And he intends to keep looking for ways to meet the demands of rising enrollment.
Such initiatives should help toward the most important objective of boosting student academic performance, Browning said.
“We’re going to be an A district,” he said.
When Browning took office, he called the district’s past performance “mediocre” and said the community should not be satisfied with “average.”
At the time, the state graded the district a B, with 34th most points earned among all 67 districts. When Browning sought reelection in 2016, its ranking on the state points system had dropped to 39th.
This year, Pasco fell to 41st on the list, while still retaining its B.
Over the same period, the district has seen its number of A-rated schools more than double, while eliminating all F grades. It also moved most of its lowest-performing schools off the state’s accountability warning list, though two still remain in jeopardy of a major overhaul.
Browning is not a college-trained educator. Before winning his post, he served as secretary of state for two Republican governors, and spent more than two decades as Pasco County’s election supervisor.
He has taken hits for not understanding all the nuances of what goes on in the classroom, including from Cynthia Thompson, the Bayonet Point Middle School teacher who has announced her plan to challenge for the seat.
But Browning contends that simply being a teacher cannot prepare a person for all the aspects of running what amounts to a $1.3 billion business that encompasses education, transportation, food service, security and so many other functions.
“That stuff doesn’t just happen,” he said, noting his administration has brought in efficiencies such as natural gas buses and a centralized energy monitoring system that have saved money.
He said he has learned significant amounts about the academic portion of the job by surrounding himself with top educators, and also by immersing himself into the schools where he can see firsthand what is happening and talk to the teachers and others who give insights into their needs.
He acknowledged that not everyone will be happy with all his decisions and actions. He has a string of past battles to illustrate the point.
A group of parents fought vigorously against the district’s 2016-17 school rezoning efforts, for instance, taking the system to court and forcing the administration to rescind and revise its plan and its procedures. The United School Employees of Pasco has twice fought Browning’s plans to increase salaries by cutting staff positions and asking those who remain to work different schedules.
The School Board rejected Browning’s proposals to close down Lacoochee, Marlowe and Hudson elementary schools, part of his plans to revamp the educational offerings for those communities. His continued attempts to make changes in the Hudson area have yielded a counter-initiative by the Dayspring Academy charter school, run by former state lawmaker John Legg, who has said Browning’s team has not done enough to help the poor communities of west Pasco.
Browning’s staunch support of transgender student rights has gained wide support from the board and the LGBTQ community across Florida. But it also has led to a fierce pushback from many conservative groups, including church organizations, who have said they plan to fight until the district changes its approach.
“The naysayers will always be naysayers,” Browning said. “They don’t like change. They don’t understand how complex this district is.”
He said he hopes the voters will see his time in office as largely positive for their children and the schools, and that he can win another four years.
“This is a great district, and there are a lot of great things going on,” he said.
Official candidate qualifying takes place in June. The primary election is Aug. 18, and the general is Nov. 3.