Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Education

Teachers union president Lynne Webb steps down after 15 years

LAND O'LAKES — Lynne Webb strode to the microphone, her scribbled notes in hand, and lit into Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning.

In his year on the job, Webb said, Browning has been sincere in trying to improve the district. He also was more willing to discuss issues than the past administration, often fruitfully.

"But sometimes you cannot get agreement," Webb continued, accusing the district of violating contracts about meeting and planning time. "This is not what we agreed to. I'm sorry. It is not."

A scowling Browning shot back that the district and United School Employees of Pasco differed on details, but he would do the right thing. Within a day, some but not all of the bones of contention were resolved.

For 15 years, Webb, 57, has confronted superintendents and School Board members on behalf of district workers. Her time as USEP president has lasted longer than the stints of all but two superintendents — Tom Weightman and Chester Taylor — in the district's 126-year history.

Now it's coming to a close. Webb, Florida's second-longest-tenured current teachers union president, won't seek re-election.

District executive director for administration Kevin Shibley, who has sat on both sides of the bargaining table with Webb, said his former boss made a lasting mark by giving the rank and file a say in almost every key issue.

"She finds a way to exert influence over anything that is important to employees," Shibley said.

It almost didn't happen.

Webb's parents didn't want her to fall into a traditional "woman's job." Her mom wouldn't even let her take typing lessons, lest she become a secretary. (Webb still uses the hunt-and-peck method.)

After forays into architecture, business management and mass communication, Webb found a mentor at Pasco-Hernando Community College who suggested she'd be a natural teacher.

"That kind of pushed me into it, and I didn't regret it even though my parents weren't particularly happy," said Webb, a single mother of two at the time.

She and her mother went to the University of South Florida and graduated together in 1982. Then she joined Zephyrhills High, teaching English.

"She was a young teacher in her 20s when she came to Zephyrhills, and she was just so good," said colleague and best friend Gail Reynolds. "That's one thing I hope no one loses sight of."

At Zephyrhills, Webb said, she didn't like the regimentation. It reminded her of her own years in high school, which she "hated."

One Friday afternoon, her principal demanded to know why she hadn't worn a school shirt on spirit day. She retorted that she was on annual contract, and that she'd buy the shirt when she got a continuing contract.

Word quickly spread. It didn't take long for her to become the school's USEP representative.

Over the next few years, Webb bounced back and forth from the union office and the classroom.

She ran for the USEP presidency in 1998, falling 11 votes shy of an outright win. Her opponent dropped out before the runoff.

Since then, she has seen the district through good times and bad. She negotiated raises as high as 13 percent, and endured five years without pay hikes and layoff threats.

She fought district efforts to require employees to be on call for hurricane shelter duty, and held out on Race to the Top participation. Yet Webb also collaborated with the administration on health insurance and performance pay plans.

"She certainly stood out as being an advocate for the employees and also for the students," said Terry Rhum, retired director of employee relations. "Obviously, we looked at things through a different lens sometimes. But in the end, we had the best interest of the employees and students at hand always."

Some critics called on Webb to be more vigilant, suggesting she might have pressed for employees to "work the contract" when faced with furloughs and job reductions.

Webb noted the USEP did support teacher protests over issues like pay and job reductions. Yet asking teachers to work the contract was not popular, she said, and pushing the matter would have diminished the USEP in other areas.

"We're not steelworkers here. We are people who are dedicated to educating students," Webb said. "They're sacrificing for the students. No fire-breathing union president is going to get them to change that."

She also heard criticism that her focus has been on adult needs rather than on students. She rejected the dichotomy.

"Their working conditions are our students' learning conditions," Webb said. "You cannot separate the two."

Through it all, Webb called it like she saw it, alternately eviscerating and funny, complimentary and then angry.

Former superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she knew it was nothing personal. Browning agreed.

"We may not have agreed on everything, but I always knew where she stood on an issue," he said. "She has done her job well, whether I liked it or not."

As she departs, Webb said, the hardest part will be "keeping my mouth shut."

But she wants to step away for time with family — something in short supply during her terms. Even shopping could end up as a counseling session.

"It was like she was never off duty," Reynolds said.

Webb plans to remain involved in labor but won't return to the classroom. "It's time for me to step away," she said, "and move to a different phase of my life."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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