As Kurt Browning begins his second term as superintendent of Pasco County Schools, he knows he’s got his work cut out for him.
He found that out during his first term.
“I tell people, I have not worked as hard in my adult life as I have this past four years,” said Browning, who directs the daily operations of Florida’s 11th-largest school district.
The 58-year-old quickly added: “Although I’ve never worked this hard, I’ve probably never done anything as fulfilling.”
Elected without opposition, Browning oversees an organization with 88 schools, 73,340 students and 9,954 employees.
When he came on board, he said he assumed he’d be able to accomplish change faster.
“I’ve always been able to effectuate change pretty quickly,” said Browning, who previously served as Florida’s Secretary of State and Pasco’s Supervisor of Elections.
In Pasco County Schools, though, he found that change has been incremental, rather than sweeping.
He likens it to turning a big ship.
And, he acknowledges, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing.
For one thing, Browning said he also had to learn to work alongside the elected Pasco County School Board.
“That was a tough adjustment for me,” Browning said, adding that he hasn’t always been perfect on that score.
“I think there has been a board member or two who has pulled me aside and said, ‘You really need to communicate better. You need to keep us more informed,’” the superintendent said.
It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart: “I still make decisions, but I’ve got to remember that I’ve got a school board out there, and they’ve got a role,” he said.
When issues arise now, Browning aims to keep school board members in the loop.
For instance, the school board met in executive session on Nov. 15, so the staff could brief them on the impasse declared on Nov. 11 by the United School Employees of Pasco.
A learning curve of his own
The superintendent also had to develop a deeper knowledge of education issues.
“The first year and a half, it was a challenge,” Browning said.
Now, he can discuss educational issues facing the district and potential impacts on students, but said he’s no expert on education.
So, he said, he surrounds himself with “highly qualified, competent people — passionate people” he can turn to for the information he needs to make decisions.
The district faces big challenges.
“July 8th was not a good day for me. That was the day that the school grades came out. School grades dropped,” Browning said.
The district’s rank also dropped, from 33rd in the state to 39th.
“We’ve got to see some improvement,” Browning said. “We cannot continue to teach kids the same way we did 25 years ago, because it’s just not working.”
At the same time, it’s important to remember that good things are happening around the district, Browning said.
“You can go into kindergarten classrooms and see kids doing things independently that are just mind blowing,” he said.
He’s also impressed by the number of graduates receiving scholarships every year, and the schools the students plan to attend and their planned areas of study.
Browning understands that people judge schools by their school grade, but he said, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It doesn’t show all of the caring teachers, the caring administration. It doesn’t show all of the activities and the support that those folks give to the kids in those schools,” he said.
Still, it’s problematic when the district is drawing new school boundaries, Browning said.
At public meetings on proposed boundaries, it’s common for parent to resist sending their child to a school that has a lower grade.
That issue is likely to surface more often, as the district grapples to accommodate Pasco County’s burgeoning growth.
Work is now underway to recommend school boundaries for Bexley Elementary and Cypress Creek Middle/High School, which are set to open next fall.
As new subdivisions pop up across the landscape, the district will need more schools.
“We can’t build schools fast enough,” Browning said, pointing to the residential growth along the State Road 54 corridor, from Meadow Pointe Boulevard to Little Road.
But, the district doesn’t have the money to build more schools, Browning said.
A potential solution would be to raise school impact fees, which the superintendent favors.
That issue is expected to heat up in the coming year.
The Pasco County Commission sets the fees, which apply to new residential construction.
Social media is double-edged sword
Aside from its facility needs, another challenge facing the district is the pervasive misuse of social media.
Social media can be a great tool for sharing information, but its use can quickly spin out of control, Browning said. “It’s like a fire. You just can’t put it out.”
The consequences for misusing social media can be serious, and parents need to be vigilant about how their kids are using technology, Browning said.
“I have done everything but knocked on the doors of houses and said, ‘Know what your kids are doing.’ The last thing you want to have happen is for your kid to go and post something on Twitter about shooting up a school, blowing up a school.
“It’s going to be on the record for the rest of their life,” Browning said.
In reflecting on his first term, Browning said one area where the district has made considerable progress involves the expansion of educational options.
Four years ago, the district essentially had the International Baccalaureate program at Land O ‘Lakes and Gulf high schools, he said.
Now, it has an elementary magnet school at Sanders Memorial Elementary.
Pine View Middle School is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Candidate School.
The district has the Cambridge Program at Pasco Middle School and Pasco High School, and it has converted Centennial Middle and Bayonet Middle to S.T.E.M. magnet schools.
It also has added an Aviation Academy at Sunlake, Hudson and Zephyrhills high schools.
The district also is eyeing the possibility of bringing Cambridge to Paul R. Smith Middle, and Anclote High School and San Antonio Elementary. And, it is considering an IB elementary program at Pine View Elementary.
Browning’s days are busy. At any given time, he may be visiting a district school, discussing a budget priority at a school board meeting, or joining the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office at a news conference. He’s also been known to pose for a photo in the livestock barn at the Pasco County Fair.
Perhaps his favorite thing, though, is sitting on the stage during district high school graduations.
It never gets old, Browning said.
He looks out on the sea of “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of graduates” and thinks about their accomplishments.
“These are all kids who have met their requirements,” the superintendent said.
“I’m sitting there saying, ‘Wow, really, this is good stuff.’”
Published November 23, 2016