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Challengers hang tight in uphill battle for Pasco superintendent job

The primary election is three months away.

An election deadline quietly passed on May 11 that no one running for Pasco County school superintendent met.

Not one declared candidate submitted voter petitions to place their name on the Aug. 18 primary ballot without having to pay a filing fee. But that doesn’t mean that the race to run the largest district in the nation with an elected chief executive will necessarily be quiet.

“I’m gung ho. I’m excited and ready to go,” said Hudson High principal David LaRoche, who plans to start posting campaign signs in a week. “I’m definitely still in it.”

Bayonet Point Middle teacher Cynthia Thompson said she’s “at a crossroads” with her plans. She collected about 2,000 signatures toward getting on the ballot, but didn’t even bother to submit them when it became clear social distancing would prevent her from getting the total required number.

Like LaRoche, her ability to raise money for campaigning has been limited, as well. Still, she also expected to come up with the $9,096.54 needed to qualify as a candidate by the June 12 deadline.

“I do believe I can move forward,” Thompson said.

Each of the challengers acknowledged they have an uphill climb to defeat two-term incumbent Kurt Browning, who has spent most of his adult life in public office.

In addition to the high name recognition that comes with holding those positions, Browning has other perks of being an incumbent, ranging from the donations from businesses that have contracts with the school district to the regular free communication to families about district activities.

During the Covid-19 closures, the number of district videos, phone messages and emails sent either by or on behalf of Browning — touting everything from free food distribution to simply thanking people for their hard work — has risen. With people largely limited to computer and remote interactions, that could prove a huge benefit of incumbency.

“Anything that happens in the district right now that’s good, he can take credit for,” Thompson said of Browning. “He does have the upper hand with communication.”

She said she intended to boost her social media presence in coming weeks to better publicize her views.

LaRoche said he’s done the best he can to get the word out.

“I’m talking to people the way I can, in a safe way,” he said, pointing to Facebook conversations and website updates as part of his initiative.

He, too, saw the coronavirus pandemic as putting a damper on what might have otherwise already been a lively campaign. LaRoche had one kickoff fundraiser in February, but had to cancel three others since then.

Combined, the two hopefuls have collected 10 percent of the total contributions that the incumbent has received through the end of April.

What they are counting on is voters who want change. LaRoche suggested that could be a lot of people who, after seeing the possibility for something new after an abrupt move to remote learning, are ready for a different approach upon return.

“I think we can do a much, much better job” as a school district, LaRoche said. “That’s why I’m sticking with it. What I have heard loud and clear is this job should be done by an educator.”

Thompson agreed, suggesting that a teacher in the office would do a better job of things such as protecting staff from pay cuts and layoffs as budget revenue reductions approach.

“I want a better world for my daughter, my nephew and all the other kids in this district,” she said.

Browning has said he intends to run on his record of efforts to improve academic performance, and his plans to implement change at some long-struggling schools. He also has suggested that working as a teacher or principal cannot prepare someone for the entirety of the superintendent’s job managing a $1.3 billion business.

He could not be reached for comment.

The three declared candidates are all Republicans. If no Democrat or write-in candidate steps forward, all voters will have the opportunity to select among them in the August primary.

School Board members Colleen Beaudoin and Alison Crumbley also are up for reelection. So far, no one has announced a challenge for either seat. The incumbents said they will pay the filing fee to be on the ballot for the nonpartisan positions.