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While he was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, Bill Freeman mentored middle and high schoolers. But when he retired, he decided he needed to start earlier, in elementary school.

Freeman took up a second career and taught for a dozen years at Porter Elementary in Lincoln Park, drawing on his experiences growing up “not wealthy” in Waco, Texas. Last year, he was honored as Elementary Teacher of the Year. This year, he was elected as the new teachers union president, replacing Camille Zombro.

We joined him over coffee on his first week on the job.

What changes do you anticipate in the union under your leadership?

A big change that you will see is community involvement. I want the communities to know who we are, I want them to know what we do, how we help them and their kids. We’ve been so caught up in the business of protecting the rights of the teachers and the contracts that we haven’t had time to do that.

I would love to be collaborative with the district. However, that’s only as good as it’s allowed to be. If we can sit down at the table on equal terms, without any hidden agendas, I could work with the district very, very well.

It sounds like now, there’s an actual opportunity to start talking about instruction.

Absolutely.

How long has it been since the union actually [played that role] in San Diego Unified?

I don’t know. But it’s something we have to be involved in. That’s our job as educators.

As the school district faces another year of budget cuts, what options does it have left for balancing its budget in a responsible way? Are there any good cuts left to make?

I think it’s bare bones now. I don’t know where they’re going to go next, but wherever they go is going to drastically hurt the classroom.

How hopeful are you about the parcel tax?

I’m hopeful but I’ll tell you, with the sales tax on the same ballot, it’s going to be very hard for the average citizen who’s already struggling with this economy to say “Well, I’m going to take more money out of my pocket to give to the school system,” while Sacramento has the money, but they’re slicing that money.

The National Education Association backed Barack Obama, and now they’re at odds with Race to the Top. What do you make of the fact that there’s a Democratic president who is having strong disagreements with the teachers union? Do you think the political center has shifted?

President Obama told us he believed in charter schools well before he was elected. We disagreed with him then, we disagree with him now. We didn’t know that he would bring on board a secretary of education that would attach all these strings to federal money. We’re concerned when we start having to surrender teachers’ rights in order to get the money that the taxpayers have given to the government for their kids. We just don’t think that’s fair.

But it seems like the reason that strings are getting attached to funding is that people are worried –“Well, we fund things and we don’t have a good sense of whether or not they’re working.” Do you see an alternative way to create accountability without doing competitive grants?

We should all be held accountable for what we do. But we should be reasonable with that. State tests are a snapshot. It should be considered, but it shouldn’t be the only thing used. And we should not try to make apples out of all our kids. All kids are not going to be proficient readers by the time they’re in the fourth grade or fifth grade or whatever. We learn differently, we mature differently, any child psychologist can tell you that.

So if we really want to improve the education system, we have to get outside of the education system and help improve the conditions of the child that shows up at the schoolhouse door. The competitive funds — I think that it’s wrong. It’s individuals attempting to push their individual views on education and I think ultimately that is an attack on public education.

Here in San Diego this group has emerged, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, that is critical of the school system. Is there any possibility that the teachers union would be able to work with them?

I don’t know what their agenda is, but they have an agenda. We will not be willing to work with them to upset, overthrow or whatever you want to call it, the democratic system that we have in place in San Diego Unified.

How will the union respond to some of the claims they’re making?

I don’t think there’s a need to respond. The average citizen in San Diego can see through it. If you ask the average citizen, “What is it that you want to improve your kids’ education?” I guarantee you they will not say, “We need more people on the school board,” or that we need to put in people identified and selected by some secret group of elitists in San Diego.

One issue they brought up in their report is that the school district hasn’t fired many teachers and it’s pretty rare for it to deny tenure. Do you see that as a problem?

Not necessarily. Teachers go through two, three years of probation, so by the time they are hired, the administrators of schools know whether these teachers are good teachers or not. And there are systems in place to eliminate underperforming teachers.

One CEO asked me, “Why are you protecting bad teachers?” And I asked, “Well, what’s a bad teacher?” He said, “It’s a teacher that can’t get kids to test like the kids in La Jolla.”

I asked him “Well, have you looked at the reasons why? Have you looked at the single parent rate, the education rate, the employment rate?” And finally he said, “Well, I guess that wasn’t fair.” But that’s what we’re up against — people making statements that are not thought through.

This idea of expanding the kinds of concerns that the schools take on is really interesting. But teachers already feel pretty stretched. How will schools be able to expand their reach?

I really don’t have all the answers for that right now. But it can be done and it is going to take a little more time from the educators. We would like for the federal and state government to help us do it. But that’s not going to happen.

I think if we would start focusing on that, achievement would improve. We would have kids not roaming the streets, being able to go out and play and not locked up at night because someone’s afraid of the kids getting hurt, locked up in the house without a babysitter at the age of eight and nine while both parents are working. Those are the things we have to address — we have to reach further than the classroom.

Do you find it harder to work with kids or adults?

Adults.

Kids are so innocent. We owe them the time to listen to them, to talk to them and not stand in their way. Where on the other hand, with adults, normally they have their agenda. They want to move you one way or another.

I would much rather work with kids.

— Interview conducted and edited by EMILY ALPERT

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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