Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 | Few people in San Diego Unified are neutral when it comes to Camille Zombro, the provocative leader of the teachers union, and Zombro is rarely neutral herself.

Young, smart and blunt, she strides purposefully to the microphone at school board meetings to demand a halt to testing, denounce budget cuts as “immoral and appalling,” or decry “scare tactics” used by the superintendent. Mild diplomacy is not her business — nor does she want it to be.

“I don’t know how to not be direct,” Zombro said one afternoon in her office, seated under a massive photo of former union President Marc Knapp and an inspirational poster that shows a river cutting through a canyon and the word PERSEVERANCE. “I’ll say what I think.”

She has been the most prominent face of the union as it gains a stronger foothold in San Diego Unified, a change that has proved daunting for Superintendent Terry Grier. She was at the helm when the union poured time and money into the school board race, tipping its balance toward labor. It translated into a sea change in school politics: Teacher layoffs were all but forbidden this year as the board grappled to close its budget gap. Grier has slowed his pace, taking his cues from a board sympathetic to labor.

Those are the fruits of organizing for Zombro, who has personally visited every school in the sprawling district, trying to rally teachers in the more public, more populist tactics of community organizing. It is a shift for the San Diego Education Association, which historically shied from even calling itself a union, like many teachers unions across the country.

Backers say she is focused, dynamic and savvy, with a mindset that goes beyond pay and benefits to the workings of the classroom. Critics call her unreasonable and uncivil, saying she blocks change and holds discussions hostage.

Seemingly small issues have become boondoggles for Grier and his staff as Zombro has gone to the mat, firing salvos such as urging teachers not to sign an ethics code created by district staff. Labor relations grew so toxic last year that the former school board decided to scuttle the idea of a parcel tax because it would involve the union, not even bothering to start talks with Zombro.

She will not back down when she believes teachers have been slighted, even when it obstructs changes that would seem desirable at first glance. When Grier unrolled a plan to create dramatically smaller classes in a scattering of schools, she protested that it was unfair to change class sizes without bargaining and questioned how the schools were chosen. School board member John de Beck, once an ally of the union, said it seemed crazy for the union to protest smaller classes.

A surprising number of leaders in San Diego Unified, even longtime ones, say they don’t really know her beyond her public persona. She refuses to meet casually with Grier, insisting on the structure and certainty of the bargaining table to avoid misunderstandings or the appearance of “backroom deals” that her members are shut out of.

“There is no in between with her,” said Mitz Lee, a former school board member who was ousted at the ballot box after the union campaigned against her. “You cannot find a common ground.”

While her foes bemoan a union takeover of the school district, Zombro does not feel that her battles are won. Class sizes have grown. Teacher workloads are a sticking point as contract negotiations grind on and on. She recently broke down in tears before the school board, arguing that their stimulus plans were utterly divorced from what kids need. And the Obama Administration pushing to connect test scores to teacher evaluations, a plan she despises.

One year away from ending her term as union president, the jury may still be out on her ultimate impact. She helped increase salaries on the heels of the last superintendent; she has held the line in the face of budget cuts. But what she wins — or does not win — during the grueling negotiations over a new contract could be the test of her legacy as a labor leader, both for teachers and outsiders eyeing the work rules that set out much of what schools can and cannot do.

An Identical Twin With An Activist Streak

Zombro, the daughter of a West Virginian father and a Sri Lankan mother who met overseas, grew up in San Diego and moved from San Diego Unified to Catholic schools to Poway Unified. She and her identical twin Karla got picked on in school for being “anything from Iranian to Mexican,” and were no good at sports; Karla ruefully recalls a tennis club where instructors created a level lower than beginner to suit them. But activism clicked from the night that Camille came home indignant about torture in El Salvador after picking up an Amnesty International brochure at a Simple Minds rock concert.

“It was like the whole world just burst open,” said Karla Zombro, who now works as a community organizer in Los Angeles. The two started their own Amnesty chapter at their Poway high school. “We can’t dance. We have no musical or singing abilities. But we can cook — and boy, can we organize.”

Both went to the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karla went on to union organizing while Camille left the town recently torn by riots and fires for Dallas, where she became a teacher. Outside the classroom she pushed for safer neighborhoods and cleaner air for the children she taught as part of the nonprofit Dallas Area Interfaith. She returned to San Diego two and a half years later to teach at Baker Elementary, a largely Latino elementary school where her ability to speak Spanish served her well. She became the union representative for Baker in her second year at the school and quickly ascended up the union’s ranks, joining its board of directors, then becoming vice president. Her name spread rapidly.

“She’s on the ball,” said Elizabeth Gekakis, a special education teacher at Lincoln High School and one of its union representatives. “She’s dynamic and she doesn’t hesitate. She knows what she’s doing.”

It is widely believed that it was her activism that got Zombro yanked from Baker and transferred to Tierrasanta. She was one of nine teachers involuntarily transferred to other schools under then-Superintendent Alan Bersin, who clashed repeatedly with the union over his reforms. Zombro did not go quietly. Though she stayed at Tierrasanta, the union successfully pushed to raise the bar for such transfers, insisting that principals have a “factual basis” for the switch. Zombro said she distrusted the school system long before it harmed her personally. But others see the transfer as a turning point.

“She was personally burned by the system,” said Carl Cohn, a former superintendent who led the district when Zombro was elected. “And when you have that kind of clear injustice, it can explain why she might not be that eager to collaborate.”

Her election as union president was an upset in the normally humdrum politics of the San Diego Education Association. Sitting presidents rarely faced a competitor, but Zombro took on Terry Pesta, who some perceived as too deferential to get the job done. Retired organizer Steve Kaplan said her surprise win caused a brief rift in the union, one that eventually healed. It also marked a controversial and visible shift in the union and its tactics, from what Kaplan called “business agents” to organizers.

“She doesn’t see the union as a vending machine where people pay their money and get stuff,” said Rich Gibson, a professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University. “She has tried to take an organizing approach to unionism, which I think is great.”

Closer Ties with Labor, District at a Distance

Labor leaders say that Zombro has pushed the union to involve rank and file teachers more and organize them around issues, rather than simply responding to complaints. Her office includes a massive map of the school district and a list of schools, almost all of them highlighted to show she has visited to meet with teachers. She regularly works into the night and often on Saturdays, trekking to the office in a sweatshirt to meet with coworkers.

Zombro can readily rattle off the struggles of different schools and speak the worries that individual teachers, uneasy about what their principals might think, often shy from saying. Her tone softens when she talks about teachers, belying her tough reputation.

“There is a human side to this lady,” said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association. “She has a lot of empathy. I’ve seen her work a faculty lounge right when pink slips were issued. She wanted to make them understand: They would not be left out alone in the cold.”

Zombro also reached out to other labor groups, allying the teachers with the regional Labor Council after the National Education Association gave local unions the green light to join up if they wished, and solidly throwing her support behind the hotly debated project labor agreement. Rabbi Laurie Coskey, who leads the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, said Zombro rallied teachers to come to the aid of low wage workers such as janitors or hospital workers, whose struggles might otherwise seem far from their own. They have shown up at rallies and toted signs in the name of solidarity.

But while she built bridges with fellow teachers and unions, Zombro distanced herself from the school district. Informal talks ended in favor of formal bargaining, a more traditional tack and a slower way of reaching agreements, said Will Surbrook, formerly the director of labor relations at San Diego Unified. Cohn was heralded as a labor peacemaker, but the retiree said that even he had trouble convincing Zombro to collaborate on reforms, such as creating special schools free from both the teachers’ contract and school district rules. The union was still too wary in the post-Bersin era, Cohn said, blaming himself.

His successor, Terry Grier, has been repeatedly rebuked by the union for not involving it in key decisions from how to spend stimulus dollars to how to adjust class sizes. Critics counter that it has been Zombro and her members who are unwilling to budge. While the school district grappled with a gaping deficit, Zombro argued that the money saved by prodding veteran teachers out the door should be used to increase teacher salaries as originally intended years ago. The union ultimately agreed to devote the money to the deficit, but even floating the idea of a raise during the budget crisis earned little love for the union from outsiders.

“They could have driven the car off the cliff,” said Bruce McGirr, president of the Administrators Association. “When were they going to hit the brakes?”

Zombro is rarely drawn into their debates and seems to worry little about public opinion outside her membership. She often says that the talks swirling among decision makers and wonks are the wrong debates, sideshows to the real problems facing schools.

She sees no reason to engage in them. When the San Diego Unified deficit soared, Zombro often refused to weigh one possible cut against another, comparing it to “telling them what finger to cut off.” She says that poverty is the biggest challenge for schools, a philosophy at odds with the “no excuses” talk that now dominates education reform.

And being at odds with the supposed experts is fine with Zombro. She knows that hers is a different gospel. She will not be swayed to change it just because of a new superintendent, a new school board or a new study. Everyone always knows where she stands — even when they stand against her.

“I don’t try to spend a lot of time persuading people,” Zombro said of trying to convince people that teachers unions are a good thing. “That’s just talking.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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