Kenny Blankenship’s earliest recollections of union activity go back to his childhood, when his dad — a member of the United Steel Workers — would take him to the Tampa Theatre for annual holiday parties.
Kids would leave the theater with bicycles, toys and other presents, Blankenship said.
But he also recalls seeing his dad on the picket line.
Those early images of union life aroused Blankenship’s desire to join a union when he got a chance, and that happened in 1997 when he became a teacher at Land O’ Lakes High School.
Over the years, Blankenship’s involvement in the union grew, and in March, he was elected president of the United School Employees of Pasco.
As its new leader, Blankenship is encouraging Pasco County Schools employees to become more involved in union activities. He also wants to build stronger relationships between the district’s instructional staff and non-instructional employees.
“We want to work to strengthen our organization and the unity between the two units, because we’re not just a teachers’ union,” Blankenship said. “We’re wall-to-wall. We’re bus drivers, instructional assistants, secretaries, food service workers, the maintenance crews, custodians.”
Many people view unions as organizations that protect the weakest link, but that isn’t true, Blankenship said. However, the union does make sure the employees it represents are given due process.
“A lot of people don’t get that,” he said. “The union is there to protect your contractual rights, and to ensure that you get a fair shake.”
And while that’s important, it’s far from everything that a union has to offer for employees, Blankenship added.
The union lobbies to represent employees on important education issues. It negotiates wages and working conditions. It provides support for members needing help with classroom management, curriculum issues and working conditions, Blankenship said.
The union advocates “for the best working conditions possible, because our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Blankenship said.
Along those lines, the union lodged a complaint in March with the Florida Public Employee Relations Commission over teacher planning time. The complaint alleges that teachers are spending so much time in meetings with their professional learning communities that it is usurping time intended for individual planning.
That issue remains unresolved. But in recent negotiations, the district has agreed to increase the protected planning time for teacher’s individual planning activities. That increased time, Blankenship said, “should provide some relief for our teachers.”
Planning time is crucial for teachers to prepare for lessons, Blankenship said. It allows them to secure materials to support lessons that bring learning to life and help students gain understanding.
Blankenship uses the analogy of a football game to help explain the importance of planning.
“How much practice goes into preparing for a Friday night football game?” Blankenship asked. In the same way that coaches prepare for games, teachers must prepare to deliver quality instruction.
While planning their lessons, teachers must consider the unique needs of every student in their classroom, Blankenship said.
“You’ve got to think about, Johnny over here has dyslexia. MaryAnn has auditory processing issues. Somebody else has cognitive issues,” he said. “And then, Jose just moved in from Mexico and can’t speak a lick of English.”
Teachers have to figure out how to reach those kids, while not overlooking students who are lagging behind, or making average progress or even excelling, Blankenship said.
“That’s what goes into planning,” he said.
Blankenship blames policy decisions by the Florida Legislature and budget cuts by Gov. Rick Scott for leaving public schools in a financial lurch.
“Right now, funding is less per student than it was in 2007,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship points to a move to “privatize public education” through charter schools and vouchers, which he said dilutes financial support for public education.
“The fact is that the political climate in Tallahassee is pretty much anti-public schools and anti-union,” Blankenship said.
Funding is so tight that teachers lack adequate supplies, Blankenship said.
“They don’t have the books for kids,” he said. “Last year, my daughter was a senior. I told the governor this: ‘My daughter is a senior at Land O’ Lakes High School and she can’t take a book home to study for her American government class or her economics class because all they’ve got is enough for a class set.’
“That’s frustrating for teachers. I know that’s frustrating for students,” Blankenship said. “And, it’s frustrating for parents because they want their kids to succeed in the classroom.”
The union leader also thinks there’s too much standardized testing in the schools.
“I think the amount of standardized testing that we’re forced to do is nothing short of emotional and psychological abuse of our students and teachers,” Blankenship said.
On the other hand, there is not enough opportunity for students who are not college-bound, Blankenship added.
“We’re not meeting the needs of those students,” Blankenship said. “Where’s pipe-fitting? Where’s welding?
“When I was in high school. Every school had a shop class, a building trades class, a drafting class – which would be CAD (computer-aided design) now,” he said.
It’s true that employees don’t have to be members for the union to bargain for their wages and working conditions, Blankenship said. To be represented individually by the union, however, an employee must be a member.
Despite difficulties that teachers face, being an educator remains a rewarding career, Blankenship said. That’s because teachers can make a real difference in the lives of their students.
“People like John Benedetto, Al Claggett, Max Ramos and Nancy Browning — those are teachers who inspired thousands, upon thousands of students,” Blankenship said.
In much the same way, the union wants to do what it can to help employees build on their professional strengths, Blankenship said. It also wants to help employees see the value of becoming a member.
“We invest in our clothes. We invest in our vehicles. We invest in our homes,” Blankenship said. “Why wouldn’t we invest in our profession?”
Published October 1, 2014
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