By B.C. Manion
As Kurt Browning assumes the helm of Pasco County Schools this week, he wants to set a tone of high expectations for both students and staff.
Browning, who defeated incumbent Heather Fiorentino in the primary and write-in candidate Kathy Lambert in the general election, has been working for months to identify changes in the district’s structure, to streamline operations and to better support the system’s goals.
When Browning is making decisions, he said, his driving question will be this: “Is it best for the kids?”
The district must have high expectations for student performance and must focus on preparing its graduates for careers and college.
There are high-paying technical jobs that are being left unfilled or shipped overseas because of a national lack of qualified workers, Browning said. He added, Pasco schools must prepare its students to enable them to lead productive lives.
The district has career academies, but Browning wants to boost their effectiveness. He would like to forge stronger ties with the Pasco Economic Development Council and companies that can provide internships and other opportunities for students.
“We’re going to put a fire under career academies and the whole training piece,” Browning said.
The district must set high expectations for student achievement and do what it takes to help students who are failing, Browning said.
All schools must be expected to perform well, and when schools fall short, the district must use a strategic approach to close the gap, he said. Strategies may include differentiated pay for effective teachers who go to work in low-performing schools and extra help for struggling students, such as literacy and math coaches.
“These kids can learn,” Browning said. “The district has the responsibility to provide the extra help they need.”
It’s essential to focus on what’s good for students when making hiring decisions, dismissing employees, allocating resources, setting calendars and addressing policy issues, Browning said.
Student success is tied to the district’s culture, Browning said.
“I think, in large part, there is very little trust in our district,” he said. He noted there’s been a lack of trust between the superintendent and the school board members, between the superintendent and the superintendent’s staff, between the district staff and principals and between principals and teachers.
Browning said there’s work to be done to build relationships in the district, and part of that will involve improved communications.
“One of the expectations of our management team will be to start their days off in schools,” Browning said. “How do you know how to manage an organization this large if you don’t know what’s going on, out in the organization? You don’t.”
He also plans to meet with district staff in town halls during January.
“Our district employees need to hear from the superintendent,” Browning said. “They need to know my heart on things; they need to know where I’m coming from.”
He also plans to have a meeting with all of the district’s principals at the same time.
“I want them to hear from my lips to their ears what drives me, what motivates me and what my expectations are,” Browning said.
Browning also wants to increase opportunities for communication with parents.
“You can’t send a sheet home in a child’s backpack and expect a parent to read it,” Browning said.
He wants to hold what he calls tele-town halls, where parents will be able to dial in and ask him questions, directly. It would work similarly to a radio talk show, he said.
As for directly educating kids, Browning said he’s not impressed by what he’s heard around the district regarding personal relationships district employees are having with subordinates.
“I’ve heard from teachers across this county that things are going on in our schools that are distractions to teaching our kids,” Browning said. He added, “These people who get themselves in these relationships, if they think for one minute that it’s quiet, who are they kidding? It’s not healthy for the district, and it’s not best for the kids.
“Some people say, ‘Well, what goes on in my bedroom is none of the district’s business.’ … Let me tell those people something: What goes on in your bedrooms, particularly if it is with other school district employees, affects the way that you manage the school and it is my business,” Browning continued.
He has zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
“I am not putting up with any employee of the district that is going to sexually harass or otherwise harass employees in our district,” Browning said.
Changing the culture won’t happen overnight, he said.
“Trust building, that’s going to come at its own pace. I can’t force people to trust me. I’ve got to demonstrate things to them that show that they can trust me,” he said.
He said establishing that trust is vital to lead effectively: “If I don’t trust you, I am certainly not going to follow you.”
While the superintendent is enthusiastic and confident the district can achieve higher standards, he also realizes that it faces many challenges — including a $23 million deficit that must be plugged for next year’s budget.
He also knows that years of budget cuts have hurt employee morale.
In making cuts, Browning said he wants to have all of his options.
In some cases, he said, it may make sense to spend money now to realize long-term, recurring savings.
“We’ve got to look long term at what our expenditures are for energy,” Browning said. Purchasing equipment now could yield years of lower costs, he said. The same may be true for irrigation systems. The district may also explore the potential of purchasing some natural gas-powered buses, he said.
Browning said he decided to run for the superintendent’s job because he was encouraged to do so by people across Pasco County.
“What I do bring to the table, I think, is a steady hand,” Browning said. “I bring the ability to care about people. I was born here. I was raised here. I want to make a difference.”
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