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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009 | John de Beck was once the treasurer of the San Diego teachers union and still calls himself a “labor guy.” But nearly two decades since the retired teacher was elected to the squabbling San Diego Unified board, he is on the outs with the teachers union just as it gains new political pull in the school district.
De Beck says the union changed. The union says he did. Its website calls him “a former ally” whose “recent actions are not those of a friend, ally or advocate for working people.”
Recently, he has opposed the union on key issues such as teacher layoffs and work rules on its $2.1 billion facilities bond. Those stances have made him the wild card on a school board that changed dramatically in the November election, shifting to a new majority backed by labor that has already reversed teacher layoffs and agreed to negotiate with construction unions on the bond. And as political alliances and enmities reshuffle, De Beck has been heralded as the unlikely champion of the same union critics and skeptics who once opposed him.
“He has everything to gain by playing ball with the union,” said Tyler Cramer, a former critic of de Beck and one-time chairman of the now-dissolved Business Roundtable for Education. “And he hasn’t.”
De Beck insists he is simply his own man. And though he had already clashed with the union before the elections, he says he is particularly suspicious of any group with power, even the group that he once belonged to and helped lead. Union gains at the polls seem to have roused his contrarian streak.
“I fought it when it was the business interests who wanted to run the school district and I’ll fight it when the teachers say they want to run the school district,” de Beck said. “Absolute power corrupts.”
De Beck and the union have repeatedly sparred in the past year. He backed the decision to take the first step toward laying off hundreds of teachers when budget cuts first menaced San Diego Unified last year. He laid the blame with the union when the school district gave up crafting a parcel tax; the union complained that it was never seriously approached about the idea. He repeated rumors that the union was fracturing with the California Teachers Association just as the teachers union was rushing to dispel them. And last month he voted against hashing out a labor agreement on a new $2.1 billion facilities bond for local schools, an act he repeatedly dubbed “political suicide,” in opposition to the teachers union.
“I guess they’ve decided I wasn’t doing what they wanted,” de Beck said Monday. “I don’t think I ever did what they wanted.”
De Beck, 78, was first elected from the classroom to the school board in 1990 to represent the coastal stretches of the school district. His political reputation and union bona fides were burnished on opposing former Superintendent Alan Bersin and his aggressive set of classroom reforms. It cemented the retired teacher as a union ally in an era when the schools were polarized on the question of the Bersin programs. You were with Bersin or you were against him, said one of his former opponents, and the unions and de Beck were against Bersin. Union leaders say he has always gotten their endorsement.
“I’ve been real surprised to see how he has voted, particularly on this labor agreement,” said Clyde Fuller, a retired FBI agent who ran against de Beck for the school board nine years ago. “When I ran he seemed to be firmly aligned with the union and their positions. But there was only one issue and that was Alan Bersin.”
His outspokenness is nothing new; de Beck has offended and delighted with his blunt speech on countless issues. Last year he spurred angry letters from Lincoln High School students after telling a television reporter that a lack of student motivation was to blame for its low test scores. Unfazed by accusations of racism, De Beck defended his points in a letter that concluded, “I am sorry that the truth hurt!” And in recent months his words have landed him in hot water with his former allies.
“It is unbelievable that anyone who tries to call himself a union guy is doing and saying the things he is,” said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, the teachers union.
What changed — and when — is disputed. Zombro cites teacher layoffs as the breaking point that pitted de Beck against her members last summer. The union contends that he has “made fatalistic and drastic projections and proposed draconian solutions to fit his own view of the crisis,” such as his recently fizzled proposal to cut the school year for savings. Such a solution was widely criticized by educators as an indiscriminate and shortsighted cut that would fall most heavily on the weakest students. It was quickly scuttled by the rest of the board.
“He has changed,” said Bruce McGirr, president of the administrators association. “I don’t think the union has. The union always had his ear. But I think as he has matured he has become more moderate” politically.
De Beck chalks up the split to what he describes as a more aggressive and less conciliatory union with a “my way or the highway” attitude, a characterization that was backed by former board member Frances O’Neill Zimmerman. He criticized the union for protesting the board decision last summer to cut class sizes in selected grades and schools — a decision that helped return teachers to classrooms as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California legislators scaled down the cuts facing public schools. The union countered that it needed to be included in any such decision. It won a similar grievance a decade and a half ago.
His stances have juggled the old coalitions that backed him and battled him. Former opponents such as Cramer see him as a counterweight to the new school board majority who made the controversial decision to strike up a labor agreement on the new bond; de Beck plans to run for office again next year and seems untroubled by losing the support of the union through his votes and his words. He said simply, “I’ll take my lumps.”
It may actually be the union that loses if the clashes continue, said Rich Gibson, professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University and a former Michigan teachers union organizer. De Beck is still seen publicly as “a fairly honest guy who has served over the long haul and who has not sold out even if his actions are eclectic,” Gibson said, and sparring with him steers attention from bigger issues such as the quantity of testing. Zombro echoed his comments and expressed reluctance to speak for this story after an initial interview.
“I don’t want this de Beck versus Zombro stuff,” she said. “We lose track of the core of what we’re doing.”
Zimmerman believes there is still time to mend fences between de Beck and the union. “I don’t think the door is closed,” she said. “But I don’t know how he will get there.”