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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Man who’ll sport school union label of ‘president’ has worn quite a few

The newly elected president of United School Employees of Pasco has an eclectic résumé that includes, but goes far beyond, returning to his alma mater, Land O’ Lakes High, to teach.

Kenny Blankenship irrigated orange groves as a teenager, sailed with the Navy as a young man, earned a psychology degree after his enlistment ended and attended seminary when he was in his 30s.

On June 1, Blankenship will assume his new duties as union president, succeeding Lynne Webb, who decided to retire after serving since the late 1990s.

One of the first issues Blankenship faces: contract negotiations, which traditionally take place during the summer and sometimes extend into the fall and beyond, as the district and the union bargain over pay raises, working conditions and other topics.

A simmering dispute involves an unfair labor practices complaint the union filed against the district. The union claims teacher planning time is being consumed by collaboration meetings teachers must attend under the district’s new Professional Learning Communities concept.

Superintendent Kurt Browning disagrees.

Blankenship said he is ready for this next chapter in his life.

“I just look forward to being able to represent the people who elected me, and want to do as good a job as Lynne Webb has over the last 15 years,” he said.

Blankenship, 54, was born in Naples and lived for a few years in Plant City, but he spent most of his childhood and his teen years in Land O’ Lakes, where he worked in orange groves, swam and fished with his pals, and generally enjoyed life in what then was a less-congested central Pasco County.

Blankenship attended Sanders Memorial Elementary in Land O’ Lakes, but the nearest secondary schools were Pasco Junior High and Pasco High in Dade City, a 90-minute bus ride each way. The school bus spent a large chunk of that time picking up students in the Land O’ Lakes area, and Blankenship figured out that if he boarded the bus at a different stop he could sleep later and shave a good 30 minutes off the ride.

Even then, Pasco was going through a growth spurt, and schools were crowded. Off U.S. 41, the school district was building Land O’ Lakes High School, and by his junior year, Blankenship no longer had to take the long bus ride to Dade City.

As an adult he would work his way back to Land O’ Lakes High, this time on staff, but his was not the direct route to teaching.

After graduating from Land O’ Lakes High in 1977, he enrolled at the University of South Florida, but he didn’t exactly make his mark as a stellar student. By the end of freshman year, he landed himself on academic probation.

“I wasn’t the best college student that first year,” Blankenship said. “I had freshmanitis.”

With his academic career on life-support, he pondered other options.

His decision: He enlisted in a six-year hitch with the Navy, serving on the USS John F. Kennedy.

After Blankenship completed those half-dozen years in the Navy, he returned to USF, this time with more success. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and after graduation worked for a substance abuse treatment center in Tampa.

Then his career path took another abrupt turn — this time a religious one — when he enrolled in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and earned a master’s degree in divinity in 1993.

From there, he headed to Savannah, Ga., for a residency as a hospital chaplain, then moved back to Pasco County and worked at the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute.

At that point, his circuitous route to a career in education was nearing its end. On his days off, Blankenship began substitute teaching, often at Land O’ Lakes High, and in 1995 then-Principal Max Ramos offered him a job teaching special-education students.

In ensuing years, he would teach social studies and an intensive reading class for students who struggled to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Blankenship became active in USEP “the day I walked through the door” when another teacher took him to a union meeting.

Although school employees aren’t required to join the union, for Blankenship signing up was natural. His father had been a member of the United Steelworkers. His maternal grandfather had been a railroad worker.

“I had always had that awareness of the union and what the union does,” he said.

Blankenship did more than attend meetings. He participated in union protests and sometimes addressed the school board on issues facing teachers and students. For example, in 2009 he complained to the board about proposed policy changes that he and other teachers said infringed on their free speech rights by placing restrictions on when they could speak out about disagreements with the board.

“Much of the document upsets my stomach,” Blankenship said at the time.

He began to work his way up among the ranks, serving as secretary-treasurer and then vice president.

Now, as the day approaches when he takes over as USEP president, Blankenship said he is hoping for an improvement in the union’s relationship with the district administration. He said he would like to return to a more collaborative relationship like the one the union and the district had when John Long was superintendent from 1996 to 2004.

The union had a less cozy relationship with former Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and endorsed her fellow Republican Kurt Browning when Fiorentino ran for a third four-year term in 2012.

Browning and the union had something of a rocky relationship his first year, but Blankenship said “we are still hopeful” that will improve. He said some of the issues that caused conflict were related to the transition from one administration to another and reorganization at the district offices.

Blankenship does get to take office with a trim haircut. His locks became famous at union headquarters and school board meetings after he vowed several years ago to let his hair grow until school employees received a raise. He was inspired by something he read about two men in Finland who refused to cut their beards until the economy improved.

With the school district facing annual budget woes during and after the recession, nearly six years passed before those raises happened in 2013. By then, Blankenship sported a ponytail that was more than 13 inches long.

“I was thinking two years,” he said wistfully. “Three years at the most.”

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Twitter: @RBlairTBO

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