LAND O'LAKES — For years, the Pasco County School Board always could depend upon the "Three Caballeros" — Land O'Lakes High teachers Kenny Blankenship, Pat Connolly and Robert Marsh — to show up and speak out, even when other employees feared to tread.
They'd critique proposed policies, offer insights from the classroom, suggest actions they thought would improve teachers' lot in life.
Now the United School Employees of Pasco seeks new leadership for the first time in 15 years, with president Lynne Webb's pending retirement. And both Connolly and Blankenship hope to take the helm at a time when school workers' contracts and evaluations face critical challenges.
Blankenship, 54, says he has the experience that matters most. The USEP's current vice president for teachers, he's been a school building representative to the union, and served on several committees and advocacy panels at the district, state and national level.
"I've been actively involved in this organization since the day I walked in the door as a teacher," he said, calling himself "tried and tested" as he worked his way through the union ranks.
Connolly, 58, says he brings strong, credible leadership to the table. A member of the USEP contract negotiating team, Connolly is the district's 2014 teacher of the year and a well-known voice in the system.
"The School Board knows who I am. … They know when I speak out, I've thought," he said. "They know I speak my mind. They listen."
In many ways, the two veteran educators stand for the same things — better pay, increased membership, and improved working conditions and training key among them. They each stress that students learn in the same place where teachers teach, so it's in everyone's interest to make that place the best it can be.
It's getting there that separates the candidates.
Connolly aims to take on the outsider role, questioning the way the USEP has made decisions in the past and suggesting the union is out of touch with teachers' real concerns.
Even while sitting on the teachers negotiating team, he went outside the process to politick district officials on a pay raise proposal that he didn't believe was getting its due consideration.
"I presented the case to them as logically and dispassionately as I could," Connolly says of the "share" system that eventually won acceptance. "I got back emails from School Board members and other people over there saying, 'You're right.'"
The stakes are too high to sit back and watch, he said, when you know you can make a difference.
Blankenship positions himself as the insider, defending past union practices and his role in them.
He notes the importance of working through committees to gain perspective, then knowing when to fight and when to compromise.
Most of the big battles must come in Tallahassee, he said, where it can appear that many lawmakers want to change public education without much regard for teachers.
"Our legislators need to know that what they are doing is harming public education. Public education is not failing our children," said Blankenship, who has chaired the Florida Education Association government relations committee.
Whoever wins will become the public persona of the union. That means filling the shoes of Webb, who has regularly made superintendents squirm with feisty, funny and yet pointed commentary on the state of affairs for school workers.
Both candidates said they're ready.
Connolly, also an amateur actor, has a presence that captures the crowd. He speaks from prepared notes to avoid wandering, yet also can extemporize when necessary.
Blankenship is more folksy and laid back — trained as a pastor, though, he, too, can get fiery passionate on the issues.
USEP members will have to decide which man is best suited to represent them. The voting begins Thursday.
If Connolly loses, he said he is unlikely to return to his Land O'Lakes High classroom, as another teacher is ready to take over his classes.
If Blankenship loses, he said he intends to go back to teaching at Land O'Lakes.
The final tally is set to be counted on March 13.