After nearly eight years under Pasco County School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, the 67,000-student school system badly needs new leadership. Poor morale, Fiorentino's lack of respect for the school board and what appears to be no growth or a downward trend in some students' achievement make that clear.
Kurt Browning, like Fiorentino a Republican, offers voters a chance to get the schoolhouse in order in the Aug. 14 Republican Party primary.
Browning, a 53-year-old Dade City native, served as secretary of state under Gov. Charlie Crist and for part of Gov. Rick Scott's current term. As such, Browning headed a multifaceted agency that does far more than conduct statewide elections, for which it is best known.
Before that, he served with distinction for 26 years as Pasco's supervisor of elections. When many counties stumbled through the vigorously contested 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Browning guided Pasco to a clean election, which was standard during his tenure.
Browning, who has a master's degree in public administration and is a strong supporter of vocational education, is an inspirational leader who surrounds himself with qualified people. He values input.
That management style and philosophy, and his record of public service, should satisfy any voter who believes that only someone with an education background should be a school system's top administrator. Browning does teach some American federal government classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College and correctly notes that "everyone is an educator at some point."
The Aug. 14 primary also features a third candidate, Kenneth Benson, a 54-year-old handyman from Moon Lake. The winner of the primary moves to the November general election, where two write-ins qualified for the ballot.
When Fiorentino, 54, a former classroom teacher and state lawmaker, sought the post eight years ago, we were concerned about her lack of administrative experience. She has proven to be a micromanager, is known to be overbearing and has treated the school board — an elected body — as an impediment to her authority.
"There are five Republicans on this board," one official who asked not to be named tells us. "It should be a match made in heaven."
Far from it.
Fiorentino once overrode a district textbook committee's recommendation regarding a new social studies book without first telling the board — an insult to members.
A Florida Association of District School Superintendents study of the district found that morale was "seen as declining" and warranted "immediate attention." The review, which was requested by Fiorentino, also noted that her management style "is seen to cause hesitancy in the timeliness of district-level and school-based leaders making decisions and being willing to be innovative and proactive in the practice of their roles."
What did Fiorentino do? Instead addressing the identified issues, she kept putting off discussing the report with the board.
Under her watch, Pasco is 34th out of the state's 67 districts under the state Department of Education's ranking system, which is based on FCAT performance. District-wide reading scores haven't improved the last few years. Some grades fell below the state average in science and math performance. And only about 49 percent of high school students did well enough on college placement tests in reading, writing and math that they didn't need remedial courses at the community college level.
Fiorentino's biggest criticism of Browning — other than that he is not an educator — is his participation in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program. In 2010 he got a $426,897 payout from the state, but later returned to his job as secretary of state, making $140,000 a year. He also is receiving a current pension of $7,273 a month.
Now Fiorentino says Browning wants to "triple dip" by being school superintendent, which is absurd. What she fails to point out is that she voted for the DROP legislation while in the state House and that the district has mentoring contracts with some former district employees who were in DROP.
Browning took advantage of a program approved by the Legislature. Since then the program has rightly been revised. But he did nothing illegal or unethical, and the matter has no bearing on his ability to be school superintendent.
The Pasco County School District sorely needs new leadership. Browning would inspire confidence, promote innovation and lift morale. He would respect the duties of the school board and work with it to take the school system back to the high level that former Superintendent John Long had established.
The Tampa Tribune strongly endorses Kurt Browning for Pasco County superintendent of schools.