Zephyrhills economic summit puts focus on education

Fostering educational opportunities in Pasco County was the primary focus of the second annual Zephyrhills Economic Summit.

Doing that begins with beefing up the Pasco County school district’s career and technical education programs, said Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools.

“We need to put our career academies on steroids,” said Browning, one of several guest speakers at the Oct. 24 summit, at the new Zephyrhills City Hall, that brought together local education, business and government stakeholders.

Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning was one of several guest speakers at the second annual Zephyrhills Economic Summit. The event focused on local educational and career opportunities in Pasco County. (Courtesy of The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce)

Based on the region’s business profile, Browning said there needs to be greater emphasis on teaching trade skills — such as roofing and carpentry, plumbing, HVAC technicians, electricians and more.

“One of the things that we keep hearing a lot about is the trades. I’m continually amazed of the number of people that stop us and say, ‘I just need young men that can get up there and lay roof,’” Browning said.

To meet those demands, he called for increased state funding and greater collaboration with the Florida Department of Education to create industrial certifications for those fields. The district also needs to ensure opportunities for students, not destined for college, to have a chance to learn trade skills that can translate to high-wage job right out of high school.

Browning put it this way: “What we need to do is have training programs that meet the needs of all of our students, so if you’re going to be a plumber, you be the best plumber you can be.”

Browning also said the school district needs more input from local business leaders on the types of labor needed for the present and future.

“We need to do a better job of communicating, and we need to create a better relationship with our chambers, because the chambers are the ones that are really connecting, letting businesses know what we do and creating dialogues to help build that need,” the superintendent said.

Preparing tomorrow’s workforce
Browning was upbeat about some of the career and technical academies the district presently offers.

Pasco County School’s Career and Technical Education programs were discussed extensively at the second annual Zephyrhills Economic Summit. (Courtesy of Pasco Schools)

He pointed to Zephyrhills High’s aviation academy and Wesley Chapel High’s automotive technology academy, along with academies at other schools ranging from health and finance, to cybersecurity and culinary arts.

“I think we’re on the right path,” Browning said. “We’re working tirelessly trying to make sure our programs are relevant to meet the employment needs of our employers in Pasco County. We’re not perfect, and we’re not where we need to be. We’re still trying to figure out how to address the trades issue.”

Browning also mentioned the district is designing a technical high school in east Pasco that would likely open by 2022.

The district’s only two technical offerings — Marchman Technical College and Wendell Krinn Technical High School (which replaced Ridgewood High this school year) — are located in New Port Richey.

Plans call for the new school to be built on a 125-acre, district-owned tract of land along Fairview Heights and Handcart Road in the Dade City area.

It will help relieve overcrowding at Pasco, Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch high schools, Browning said.

“It’s going to be uniquely situated in the right place, right spot, offering technical career education students are clamoring for,” he said.

The technical school is also something the manufacturing industry is pushing for, according to Tom Mudano, AmSkills executive director, another guest speaker at the summit.

Mudano said a tech school based in east Pasco could help lure more manufacturing business to the region, to follow in the footsteps of companies such as Mettler Toledo and TouchPoint Medical, which he said have already brought a combined 700 jobs to the county.

“We truly believe that we need a facility on this side of Pasco County,” Mudano said. “If you’re looking at bringing jobs here, having a workforce is important.”

Mudano pointed out Tampa Bay has the most number of manufacturers in the state. And, he said that many of those companies have expressed a great need for additional skilled and semi-skilled workers.

“A lot of people don’t even realize that there’s a lot of (manufacturing) opportunities out there,” he said.

Mudano also assured that those types of trade jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

He cited information from the National Association of Manufacturers that projects there will be about 3.4 million jobs over the next 10 years, yet only 1.1 million of them will get filled.

The summit also featured a lengthy presentation from state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Thonotosassa. Much of his talk centered on the state’s education system and the strides made during the last several years.

He pointed to the advent of charter schools and various opportunity scholarship programs as key reasons for boosting the state’s public education system on the whole.

“Everybody is more on their game today than they were 20 years ago. We have a rising graduation rate, better testing scores,” said Lee, who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties in District 20.

He added: “We have created some competition for the public education system, and the public education system has responded well.”

Meanwhile, Lee suggested that going forward, the state legislature should “back off some of the micromanagement” of county school districts. He said school boards should instead have more control over district budgets and educational programs to “best meet the needs of the individual student populations of the schools.”

Lee also advocated for creating “fair competition” and “leveling the playing field” between public schools and alternative charter schools.

One way to do that, he said, includes loosening up some of strict building requirements of new public schools, called State Requirements for Educational Facilities (SREF), that cost school districts exponentially more than their charter school counterparts. He asked: “Why is it costing public education system 20 percent more to build a public school than it is a charter school?”

Other speakers at the summit included Dr. Keiva Wiley, Pasco County Schools director of Career and Technical Education; Angie Stone, Zephyrhills High School principal; Dr. Stanley Giannet, of Pasco-Hernando State College; Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley; Maria Reza, Career Source Pasco/Hernando business services consultant; Seta Ruiz, Florida Hospital Zephyrhills director of clinical services; and, Dr. Randy Stovall, Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce president.

The Zephyrhills Economic Development Coalition presented the summit, in partnership with the City of Zephyrhills and The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.

Published November 7, 2018

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