There's no middle ground when it comes to Ritchie Webb.
Take, for example, last month’s Neshaminy school board meeting. As Webb took his seat as president, half the packed crowd rose and cheered; the remainder jeered and chanted, “Negotiate.”
Webb has stood center stage in the district’s bitter and polarizing contract impasse for four years — the longest-running stalemate in the state, with no end in sight.
To his supporters, he is “a hero,” “cunning,” and “fair.”
His critics call him a union-buster who refuses to negotiate in good faith with the 654-member Neshaminy Federation of Teachers.
“My main thought has always been to err on the side of the children,” Webb said last week. “People lose sight of the big picture. If we cannot negotiate a contract we can afford, by law we have to cut programs and close schools.
“The schools were built for our children, not for anyone else. I don’t want my grandchildren not to have gym class, not to play music. Those are things that would have to go.”
Webb, 58, of Levittown, is in his ninth year on the board. Last year, the registered Republican ran unopposed for a third term, campaigning for the contract offer now on the table: a 1 percent raise in base salaries each of the next three years, a 15 percent contribution by teachers for health insurance, no retroactive pay, and elimination of the early-retirement incentive.
“I wanted to see it through,” Webb said. “I started with it, and I thought I know it better than most people.”
Webb “deals with the union the way he deals with everyone: He’s extraordinarily fair,” former board member William O’Connor said.
Union negotiator Jeff Dunkley said Webb “comes across as a gentleman” in the contract talks. “He smiles a lot, shakes your hand, and acts polite. What’s most frustrating is his inability or unwillingness to bring this drawn-out impasse to a logical conclusion.”
That frustration led to last month’s eight-day strike by teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians, forcing the cancellation of classes for the 8,568 students. Webb promptly suspended contract talks until the teachers returned to work.
O’Connor calls Webb “dumb as a fox.”
“He likes to play the coy, backward guy from the South — very grandfatherly,” O’Connor said. “You wouldn’t think he has much on the ball. He’s so much smarter, more cunning than you’d ever give him credit for.”
Webb was born in 1953 in Lester, W.Va., the son of a coal miner. When the mines closed, the family moved to Bristol Borough for his father to work construction.
After graduating from Bristol High School, Webb took accounting courses, college courses, and training in food safety. He and Jennie, his wife of 41 years, have run Webb Caterers in Bristol Borough since 1979.
The couple also offer courses on safe food preparation for restaurants. And Webb also provides the food service for Bristol Township School District’s 7,000 students, and runs a tax and accounting business.
“With my background, and working in another district, I know the rules, regulations, and politics of a large school district,” he said.
In 2003, Webb thought his background would be an asset to Neshaminy, which was facing another tough choice: renovate the high school or build a new one. He won his first election and a seat on the board.
When O’Connor and another Democrat were elected to the Republican-controlled board in 2007, the first thing Webb did “was reach out to each of us,” O’Connor said.
“It showed me how much he wanted to be a true bipartisan leader, to trust each other,” O’Connor said. “That’s when he turned the corner with me.”
Larry Pastor, founder of the Neshaminy Taxpayers organization, calls Webb “a hero.”
"He's not politically driven; he's not power-driven," said Pastor, who met Webb when the contract issue surfaced. "He hates people doing the wrong thing — he defends our students from the loss of programs and educational quality by holding out for an affordable contract.
“He truly believes in the rights of students and the rights of taxpayers. He truly respects educators, Pastor added. “It’s not about bashing teachers; it’s about economics.”
But Dunkley questions Webb’s respect for teachers. During the strike, Webb called teachers “poor examples for our children,” and at public board meetings he allows residents to criticize teachers, often harshly, without defending them.
“As an educator, as someone who loves his job, I find it hard not to be offended by that,” Dunkley said, who teaches social studies at the high school. “It’s hard to reconcile his words with his actions, or inactions.”
Webb maintains that the district cannot afford the union’s latest demand for raises: 2.75 percent, 3 percent and 3.5 percent for three years, plus a 1 percent retroactive raise for last year. Base salaries under the expired contract range from $42,552 to $95,923; the average salary is about $79,000.
By holding firm, he has developed a cult following among taxpayers; union members and backers call him unreasonable and immovable.
He also has been accused of trying to break the union, whose members are working their fourth school year without a raise.
“I’m very pro-union, not antiunion,” Webb said at a recent board meeting. “My father was a coal miner. One son is a police officer; another is a union carpenter in Philadelphia. I’m treasurer of a bargaining unit” of the PSEA Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Webb’s son the police officer, Ritchie Webb Jr., is embroiled in a fight of his own. The Bristol Borough patrolman has filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court against borough officials and members of the police department, alleging harassment and retaliation for refusing to lie for a former officer. That officer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and served three months in jail for using his position to have sex with a woman.
Webb has two other sons and two daughters, all grown, and seven grandchildren, ages 18 to 3 months, including four in elementary and middle schools.
“In 2003, I never envisioned it would be this tough a job,” Webb said of school board duties. “I never added up the time — probably 20 hours a week with calls.”
As the district’s lead negotiator, Webb has received personal attacks, threats, and nasty letters from people “who want me to give in to the union’s demands,” he said. “But the public support has been phenomenal. Ninety to 95 percent of the e-mails are in total support.”
Board work makes it tough for him to follow the Phillies regularly, but he manages to catch Eagles games. And work on the contract, including 37 negotiating sessions, has cut into his time at the family’s Shore house and fishing for flounder on his 18-foot Parker center-console boat.
Webb said his goal is to settle the contract.
“I have no political ambitions. I want to finish my term and spend time with my family,” he said. “I’ll continue my careers and work toward retirement. I’m too old to work and too young to retire.”