Practically no education-related topic was off limits during Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning’s recent visit with The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce.
At a recent breakfast meeting at the The Edwinola, Browning touched on everything from teacher pay and performance standards, to acceleration programs and school safety.
“We live in a crazy day and time in education,” said Browning, addressing dozens of chamber members.
Browning praised the district’s teachers as a whole, saying they’re “busting their tail ends trying to educate the kids.
“Being a teacher today is tough, tough work, and it is patience, particularly when you look at the schools. Every district has schools that range on one end of the spectrum to the other — from the low socioeconomic to the very affluent schools,” Browning said.
The Pasco County school district encompasses about 73,000 students across 90 schools, making it the state’s 11th largest district. Its annual operational budget is about $1.2 billion.
A call for more state funding
Browning mentioned he’s been visiting schools throughout the county to gather input from educators on “what’s right, what’s not right, what needs to be fixed, what’s working.”
In the same breath, he said there won’t be salary increases for teachers and other school base staff next school year.
That’s because any additional state funding for education has already been earmarked for school safety, mental health services and classroom supplies, he said.
“Once you take those three things out of there, there’s not a lot of flexible spending. So, when you start talking about pay raises…I can’t do it. I can’t do that next year because there’s not the money there for us,” Browning said.
“You’ve seen the reports on the national news about teachers walking out of classrooms, demanding more money, and I can sympathize with them on what they’re doing. But…in Florida we can’t do that, and I will advocate that,” he said.
Related to teacher pay, Browning stressed the state legislature “has got to get serious about how we’re going to fund education to the levels that it needs, so that we can address all the issues that we’re having to face.”
Browning also blasted the Florida Standards Assessment, the state’s accountability system, and the idea of assigning grades to schools and districts.
Though Pasco is labeled a ‘B’ district, Browning acknowledged the school system “has a lot of ‘C’ schools, fewer ‘B’ schools and even fewer ‘A’ schools.
“I am not sold on the idea that we tag a school with an ‘A, B, C, D or F’ — and that is going to really set the course for that school,” Browning said.
“Realtors, they will sell property based on the grade that school is given. It’s grossly unfair. I’ve asked realtors, ‘Please do not sell homes to folks, No. 1, based upon a school grade; and secondly, they think that is the school they’re going to attend.’”
Browning also criticized the state’s evaluation system for teachers.
It doesn’t add up that approximately 98 percent of the district’s teachers are graded “effective or highly effective” yet the school district still has a ‘B’ grade, he said.
“A lot of it’s based on student outcomes, student data, which some of it should be. But, we’re still arguing about how we come up with a system that truly evaluates instructors, teachers and district staff for that matter,” Browning said.
Some type of measure is needed to truly delineate great teachers from subpar ones, Browning suggested.
“I want great teachers, and I want to keep great teachers in our schools.,” he said. “Our kids, our communities do not need mediocre teachers in our classrooms.”
Rigorous academies, technical programs
Meanwhile, Browning proudly discussed the district’s school acceleration and technical programs.
He highlighted the success of the “high rigor” Cambridge International Programme in place at five schools — Pasco Middle and Pasco High since 2014; and this year introduced at San Antonio Elementary, Paul R. Smith Middle and Anclote High.
Pasco County Schools was recently awarded the District of the Year — Medium Sized Cambridge District. The district was recognized for expanding access to Cambridge exams by more than 100 percent and achieving a pass rate of 76 percent. The district also had 31 students who received a Cambridge Learner Award.
The Cambridge curriculum can be compared to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate curricula, whereby students in the high school program can earn college credits and an international diploma. Those who earn the diploma also qualify for a Florida Bright Futures College scholarship.
“If you set the bar high, those kids will achieve it,” Browning said, later adding he will continue to “press hard” for more rigorous academic programs district-wide.
Additionally, Browning was upbeat about the many career and technical academies the district currently offers, such as Zephyrhills High’s aviation academy and Wesley Chapel High’s automotive technology academy, along with academies at other schools ranging from health to finance to robotics engineering, and more.
Said Browning, “We’ve just opened up a lot of choices for kids — getting kids the opportunity to get a taste of what it is in the real world, and make those connections about what they’re learning in the classroom and how that applies to real life.”
He also observed: “When you can make that connection of what it is and how does this really impact you as an adult, then they start seeing.”
Many graduates of Wesley Chapel High’s auto academy are making as much as $75,000 to $80,000 working at local car dealerships, Browning said.
“We know that not all kids in our system are college bound. Does that mean they shouldn’t be successful? No. Does that mean they shouldn’t make good salary? No,” the superintendent said.
The school superintendent also talked about the possibility of a technical high school in east Pasco, noting it’s on the district’s five-year facilities work program.
The district’s only two technical offerings — Marchman Technical College and Wendell Krinn Technical High School (replacing Ridgewood High in 2018-2019) — are located in New Port Richey.
He said plans call for another such school to be built on a 125-acre, district-owned tract of land on Handcart Road in the Dade City area — to serve students living in Dade City, Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel.
“We are trying our darnedest to find money to build that facility,” the school superintendent said.
Elsewhere, Browning spoke extensively about school safety measures, from the district’s active threat plan to beefing up school security.
He also noted that he’s staunchly opposed to arming teachers and other school personnel.
“There’s something inside me that tells me anytime I introduce a gun in a classroom, on a school campus, it’s just another opportunity for someone to get hurt or killed,” Browning said.
Published April 25, 2018