Kurt Browning, Pasco County’s two-term incumbent superintendent, held off a furious challenge from veteran teacher and administrator David LaRoche in Tuesday’s Republican primary to run the school system for another four years.
Despite a negative social media campaign against him, Browning won nearly two-thirds of the ballots with all but a handful counted, and next heads into the general election against Bayonet Point Middle teacher Cynthia Thompson, a no-party candidate.
“I think that voters in Pasco County appreciate the change that we’ve brought to this district and the choices we’ve provided to families,” said Browning, who’s seeking a third term in office.
In the school district’s other contested race, 10-year incumbent School Board member Alison Crumbley won another term on the board, defeating first-time candidate Joshua Stringfellow, a former district finance department employee.
“I will continue the mission of creating the best education with access to all of our students,” Crumbley said. “I want to say thanks to everyone that helped me.”
The superintendent’s race was the more heated of the two campaigns.
At first, it didn’t look to be headed that way. Both candidates said early that they intended to talk about the issues facing the district, on which they had several differences.
After Browning demoted and transferred LaRoche from the Hudson High principal’s job, though, the rhetoric began to reflect a new level of animosity.
LaRoche accused Browning of playing politics instead of focusing on education issues, and began using social media to attack every perceived slight and misstep that he considered a Browning vulnerability. He sued Browning over the job change, blasted his unwillingness to participate in debates, and released snippets of old Browning text messages (received under public records law) that aimed to make the incumbent look petty and vindictive.
Browning fired back his own set of criticisms against LaRoche, while also touting his own record of district successes. Mostly, though, he stayed focused on the job of getting the schools ready for both in-person and online instruction — an effort that allowed him to send regular messages into people’s homes informing them about all the district’s activities.
“It’s pretty obvious that negative campaigns don’t win elections,” Browning said.
Some observers anticipated that the lack of a real campaign because of COVID-19, paired with that steady stream of videos, calls and emails from Browning’s office, would carry him through the primary.
They were right.
The School Board race was a much more quiet affair.
Crumbley, who hadn’t faced opposition since her first election in 2010, said she wouldn’t take any challenge for granted. She bought new campaign signs and posted them throughout the county, and targeted potential voters with mailers.
With campaigning activities limited, she used her seat on the School Board to advocate for positions she supported, such as keeping schools closed for a longer period of time because of COVID-19.
Stringfellow ran his race mostly online, posting a handful of position papers and videos outlining his views. His effort yielded limited results. With a week to go before the election, some visitors to his Facebook page said they had not heard of him before. His campaign account was largely funded with personal loans to himself.