LAND O’ LAKES — A sea of unhappy faces greeted Superintendent Kurt Browning when he stood in the Moore-Mickens Education Center cafeteria on a March evening and talked about the possibility of closing the school.
Impassioned speaker after impassioned speaker — teachers, students, former students, community members — urged him to reconsider the plan. They praised the school’s history and its importance to the community.
And ultimately, they won him over. The next day, Browning nixed the plan that would have shut Moore-Mickens’ doors and sent the school’s programs to Pasco High or other locations.
“I learned a very loud lesson on that,” said Browning, who completed his first year as superintendent Wednesday. “We need to get the community involved early on.”
Browning said he still thinks moving the programs out of the old facility was the right idea, but he handled it the wrong way.
“I didn’t communicate very well,” he said.
Moore-Mickens was just one of numerous tough issues Browning faced in his first year as Pasco’s school superintendent.
Before coming into the office, which is an elected position in Pasco, he said he expected to face a learning curve because, although he had years of administrative experience, his background was not in education. For more than 20 years, he was Pasco’s supervisor of elections. He also served two stints as Florida’s secretary of state.
“The learning curve is still there,” Browning said. “It is just not as steep as when I walked in the door.”
Browning was sworn in Nov. 20, 2012, and set to work immediately reorganizing the administrative structure in the district. He reduced the number of assistant superintendents from four to two, bringing in former district employees Ray Gadd and Amelia Van Name Larson to fill those slots. He also divided schools into four geographic areas and appointed learning community executive directors to oversee them.
“I know I’ve been accused of moving too quickly,” Browning said.
Some of those moves caused the superintendent’s relationship with United School Employees of Pasco to turn rocky. The union endorsed Browning during the election, but at last week’s school board meeting, union President Lynne Webb complained that the superintendent is violating the contract with extra meetings for teachers and an online self-assessment they must take that requires more input than the contract allows.
Browning said the relationship with the union is something he still struggles with.
Throughout the year, the superintendent often repeated that the endgame for all his decisions was to improve learning and make students college, career and life ready.
School board member Joanne Hurley said that’s a “sound goal” and one she thinks can be accomplished.
“I think that Kurt, when he took office, had a very clear vision of how he wanted to change the district and focus solely on increasing student achievement,” Hurley said. “I think this entire year has been one of transition because they are working toward a goal. There has been a lot of change, and hopefully this change will result in increased student achievement.”
Board member Allen Altman said that with any large organization “there will always be some small hiccups, but (Browning) and his team have done exactly what he said they would do” — increase communication with parents and employees, and enhance student achievement.
Board Vice Chairman Steve Luikart said this has been a year in which the school board and the new administration have been feeling each other out.
“I think there has been a learning curve on both sides and I think it’s good,” he said. “I don’t have any ill feelings. I think they are learning and we are learning to work with them.”
Board member Cynthia Armstrong said one of the biggest challenges Browning dealt with was figuring out ways to balance the budget despite a revenue shortfall of more than $20 million.
“He jumped in and was very proactive in meeting all the challenges we faced,” Armstrong said. “It was very refreshing to walk in and have some new ideas and new ways of solving the issues.
“It is certainly new to him to have a board that he has to communicate with. But he has stepped up to that challenge.”
Browning said one issue of paramount importance was providing employees their first raises since 2007. The governor and the Legislature had budgeted state funds for teacher raises, but Browning felt the district needed to give raises to other employees also,
Those raises appeared in paychecks Friday.
“It’s a long time coming,” Browning said. “It was tough with all the budget issues.”
Not every change came without growing pains.
An April 16 school board meeting drew a standing-room only crowd as hot topics collided.
Browning wanted to merge three jobs — media specialist, technology specialist and literacy coach — into one position, a plan opposed by any number of school employees, parents and students.
He also planned to close Shady Hills Elementary for two years for a major renovation and send the students to Crews Lake Middle, which would become a K-8 school in the interim. Angry Shady Hills parents questioned the wisdom of mixing elementary and middle school students.
Even though he “caught the devil,” as he puts it, from media specialists, Browning said the merger of the three jobs made sense because so much information is digital today.
The Shady Hills to Crews Lake move worked out well, winning over some of the critics, Browning said.
“Some of the most vocal parents have been complimentary about how (Crews Lake Principal) Tom Barker and his staff accommodated those students,” he said.
Even after Shady Hills Elementary reopens, Browning said, the district may consider continuing Crews Lake as a K-8 school.
“My guess is when we reopen Shady Hills, a number of parents won’t want to move their kids back,” he said.