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A tweet stirs political rumblings in the Pasco school superintendent race

Former lawmaker John Legg won’t rule out running against two-term incumbent Kurt Browning.
In his years as a state lawmaker and legislative leader on education issues, John Legg, a charter school operator, pushed for better funding for charters. Now his charter school, Dayspring Academy in Pasco County, won't benefit from a new law that shares state capital funding with charters. Legg left the state Senate last year. [SCOTT KEELER   |   TIMES]

In his years as a state lawmaker and legislative leader on education issues, John Legg, a charter school operator, pushed for better funding for charters. Now his charter school, Dayspring Academy in Pasco County, won't benefit from a new law that shares state capital funding with charters. Legg left the state Senate last year. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published Jan. 22, 2020
Updated Jan. 22, 2020

Former state senator John Legg’s tweets often seem to spark speculation about the political plans of the charter school operator.

It happened in May, when he posted a cryptic message about hope coming to Pasco County schools.

It happened again on Jan. 17, after he criticized a school district social media photo of several administrators on the Capitol steps in Tallahassee.

The big question each time: Is the former chairman of both the House and Senate education committees, who runs a successful charter school and recently earned a doctorate in education, posturing to campaign for Pasco County schools superintendent? Pasco is the nation’s largest school district to elect its chief executive.

In the spring, the answer was “No.” Legg was hinting at plans for his charter school’s expansion into new sites and grade levels.

This time, he wasn’t so certain.

“We’re researching what we can do,” said Legg, whose name hasn’t appeared on a ballot since 2012.

His critical tweet wasn’t necessarily aimed at sending a political message, he said. He simply suggested that a photo of district officials smiling in Tallahassee had bad optics in the same week that the district announced it would be closing Hudson Elementary School.

“I just thought it was poor judgment to take principals out — especially the Hudson Elementary principal — on the week you close the school, to take them to Tallahassee,” Legg said, contending it would be better to have them in the schools making improvements. “It rubbed me the wrong way.”

On a deeper level, though, he said the trip suggested that the district leadership doesn’t know how to deal with the needs of an increasingly impoverished west Pasco community — something Legg has raised frequently before. He praised the district for taking steps to address the problems, but said it shouldn’t get a pat on the back for finally tackling a situation that grew under the leadership’s watch.

For the district’s part, spokeswoman Linda Cobbe tweeted back with a defense that the administrators traveled to Tallahassee to get a first-hand look at the system that affects so much of what they do. They met with several key leaders, including the governor, she added.

To which Legg responded with more criticism: “Not the best use of time, resources, & effort. Low income students must be the priority. Pasco was ranked 34th in 2012, dropped to 41st in ‘19.”

If Legg were to enter the race, he would join a crowded field that includes two-term incumbent Kurt Browning, Hudson High principal David LaRoche and Bayonet Point Middle teacher Cynthia Thompson. All are Republicans.

UNION ELECTIONS: When Don Peace ran for the United School Employees of Pasco presidency in 2017, he targeted the contentious relationship between the incumbent Kenny Blankenship and superintendent Kurt Browning, and said the union needed to do better.

The campaign between the two was often pointed, and the margin of victory narrow among the small number of members who decided to vote.

Blankenship remained active in union life, increasing his profile in recent months to the point that many in the district expected him to try to recapture his old position. In early December, he appeared poised to mount a challenge to Peace.

But when the union’s candidate filing period ended, Blankenship had not entered the race. The Land O’ Lakes High social studies teacher had decided to run for the group’s secretary/treasurer post against two-term incumbent Cheryl Vinson, an Anclote High language arts teacher.

That didn’t leave Peace, a Gulf Middle physical education teacher of 30-plus years before taking the presidency, alone on the ballot, though. Instead, he drew a challenge from another longtime district teacher and union stalwart, Wesley Chapel Elementary third-grade teacher Lisa Mazza.

Mazza is the union’s outgoing vice president for instructional staff, and not always allied with Peace’s approach. She said she is running with a goal of pushing a positive message of teachers and the job they do, and not “against” Peace.

“Organizing is something I have come to love,” Mazza said, adding that contested elections bring heightened attention to important issues.

Peace said he would focus on the accomplishments he believed the union has made under his watch, with a goal of continuing to work collaboratively with the district for the good of staff and students.

“Our members are their employees, so it behooves both of us to work together,” Peace said.

Official campaigning begins Feb. 5, and online voting starts April 16. The county Supervisor of Elections will monitor the election, and have the results on April 30.

BUDGET CONCERN: With student numbers rising, Pasco County School District officials anticipated added state student funding of around $3 million.

After the state’s latest calculations, which showed a statewide gain of about another 10,000 students, the extra money coming to Pasco is now projected to be about half of its projection. The state has only so much money budgeted for education, and as a result must pro-rate the per-student funding.

Statewide, that meant a $20.91 decrease in funds available per student, before weighting the formula for specific needs.

District officials said they are exploring their options, with budget adjustments possible as the state realigns its revenue disbursements to the schools.