The teachers union doesn’t talk.

The San Diego Education Association’s leaders once met monthly with San Diego Unified’s superintendent. Those regular meetings no longer happen. Union workers used to meet routinely with district staff, but in 2008 the SDEA leadership banned them from doing so.

The teachers union has walked out on joint committees with other employee unions, and it’s even drifted apart from its retired members’ group, which no longer meets at the SDEA offices.

Its employees and board members have been instructed not to talk to the media. Its leaders won’t answer questions. They won’t even answer the phone. Apart from a threatening late-night phone call from union vice president Camille Zombro — “If you want a relationship with us going forward, you won’t write this story,” — the union’s top leaders wouldn’t comment for this story.

But former teachers union leaders and staff are talking. So are representatives from other unions that do business with the school district and whose members have worked alongside the SDEA. And so are district officials who have watched the union’s attitude and stance thicken over the last few years.

Here’s what they say: Driven by charismatically tough, old-school leaders, the union has metamorphosed into a hardline organization that’s become ever-more confrontational.

Staff who stood up against the hardline approach have felt compelled to leave the union in recent years. That’s left the SDEA increasingly deaf to criticism of either its politics or its methodology, former union officials said. In short, it’s become a more insular, less reasonable organization, they said.

This shift in the union’s philosophy couldn’t come at a more critical time for San Diego Unified.

Late last year, mild-mannered school Superintendent Bill Kowba grabbed headlines when he announced the district might go insolvent. Despite surviving the fiscal year, district projections show a $150 million operating deficit over the next two years.

Almost two-thirds of that $150 million projected deficit is attributable to a union-negotiated deal that restores five unpaid days off and grants teachers a series of pay increases starting this year.

Concessions on these two points, the district argues, are its only realistic way out of the current financial crisis.

Talking is therefore essential, especially since the more-than-8,000-member-strong teachers union dominates labor negotiations. But at the district, there is little hope that the union will engage in negotiations any more in the crucial coming months than it has thus far.

“I think their answer is just ‘No,’ before they even know what the question is,” said Donis Coronel, who spent years negotiating for the district and now works with the union that represents district administrators. “They’ve kinda become the bullies on the block.”

The teachers union’s shift has also been catalyzed by factors beyond its leadership.

A frustrating relationship with the district and a stagnating economy have led politically active teachers and parents to distrust San Diego Unified’s ability to provide an accurate assessment of its budget.

For several years, the district provided inaccurate or untimely information to unions about the state of its finances. Suspicion has been exacerbated by the district’s budget process, which leads to wild fluctuations between projections and reality. Teachers and parents have become tired of hearing predictions of doom and gloom that never seem to come true.

The teachers union has played to that distrust, galvanizing contempt for the district’s bean counters and propagating a mantra that the district still has secret pots of money hidden away.

But for some former top officials at the SDEA, that message stopped ringing true a long time ago.

Forced Out by Dogma

Former SDEA Vice President Marc Capitelli stepped down from his leadership position at the teachers union about a year ago.

He said he couldn’t keep repeating the SDEA’s claims about the district’s budget in good conscience.

For years, Capitelli said, the union’s instant response to San Diego Unified’s woeful budget projections has been to accuse the district of making up numbers and hiding money.

Bill Freeman, the SDEA president, used that line of attack in a September interview about the budget.

“They use fake numbers,” Freeman said. “We don’t know where the district is right now because of a lack of honesty providing data.”

Last month, after Kowba sent out a district-wide memo spelling out the district’s latest budget woes, the union responded immediately. In a letter to members, Freeman lambasted the superintendent for putting out misleading, premature forecasts that painted a worst-case scenario.

Capitelli said he doesn’t think that’s an intelligent or productive way to do business. Nor does he believe it’s the truth.

The district is fiscally incompetent, certainly, Capitelli said. But he believes at this point it has also cut out most, if not all, of the fat it may once have had and is now deadly serious about its deficits.

“I could no longer honestly say that the district was hiding money,” Capitelli said. “At one point, we had to realize that what the state had done to education funding was real. There aren’t just piles of money lying around.”

This stance put Capitelli at odds with the union’s leaders. The message at the union was clear and rigid, he said, but he wasn’t willing to keep trumpeting it. So he had to leave.

Increasingly, the union has been less willing to negotiate or even discuss realities outside its dogma, Capitelli said. It has gradually closed itself off from dissent, he said.

This shift started gaining steam in the mid-2000s. Former SDEA Executive Director Robin Whitlow said she remembers a time when the district and teachers union worked together to solve San Diego Unified’s budget problems.

Throughout her tenure, Whitlow and the sitting union president held monthly meetings with the superintendent and other district committees. Whitlow said she was in constant contact with district staff, negotiators and leaders. They spoke every few days by phone, she said.

Will Surbrook, the district’s former chief negotiator, concurred.

“Even in the worst of times we would have those monthly meetings,” Surbrook said. “A lot of things were accomplished in those meetings, they were very productive.”

That era of cooperation was fading fast when she left the union in 2006, Whitlow said.

A new wave of hardliners led by former teacher Camille Zombro had come to dominate the SDEA board, Whitlow said. She increasingly felt there was no place for her style of bargaining.

So she quit.

“They would’ve fired me if I hadn’t,” she said.

Whitlow, who is now the chief negotiator at the Administrators Association of San Diego, the union that represents school administrators, said she’s watched in dismay as the teachers union has become further entrenched in its attitude of non-negotiation.

An education union’s job is to educate its members about the financial realities facing the school district, Whitlow said. That means being honest with the union’s members about what they can do to work with the district to forge possible solutions.

The teachers union isn’t doing that, she said. Instead, Whitlow said, by reiterating the argument that the budget situation is fine and the district is being dishonest, it’s keeping its members “enslaved” to inaccurate information, cheapening the negotiating process.

The Scorned Teacher

Photo by Sam Hodgson
SDEA vice president Camille Zombro at a board meeting in January.

Ask former SDEA leaders, other union representatives and current district officials where this shift started and they all point to one person: Zombro.

Several people who have worked with Zombro said her distrust of the district started back in the early 2000s, when she was still working as a teacher at Baker Elementary School in Mountain View.

Elected as the school’s site representative for the teachers union, Zombro aggressively pursued workers’ rights, falling afoul of both the school’s principal and district leadership.

In 2004, she and eight other district teachers were involuntarily transferred from their sites to new schools. The move, widely considered a punishment for her activism, angered Zombro and forged a suspicion of the district that has stuck with her, said Don Crawford, who worked at the SDEA for 11 years before retiring in 2008.

“She was mistreated and that made her angry,” Crawford said.

From those early days, Zombro worked her way up the union ladder, eventually becoming SDEA president in 2006. Her style of leadership became clear during a 2008 dispute between the union and the district.

After the school board reneged on an agreement with the union, a furious Zombro responded by canceling all meetings between the district’s human resources staff and her union team. A letter was drafted for employees to sign, stating they would no longer be attending these regular meetings.

Those meetings had previously served as a useful forum for union and district staff to settle disputes in an informal setting, Crawford said. He refused to sign, saying the move would be counterproductive.

“That’s indicative of an approach that’s more directly confrontational,” Crawford said.

A few months later, Crawford retired.

Soon after that, Zombro gained a key ally in the form of the SDEA’s divisive new executive director, Craig Leedham.

‘You’re Either With Him, or You’re Against Him’

In more than a dozen interviews for this story, people who have worked or still work with Leedham described him as “nasty,” “aggressive,” “profane” and “paranoid.”

Leedham was hired in 2009 after the SDEA went through two executive directors in quick succession. He fit perfectly because his hardline political philosophy aligned with Zombro’s, said Capitelli, who helped hire him.

“He has his view of the world. For Craig, it’s either black or white. You’re either with him, or you’re against him,” Capitelli said. “I wouldn’t put him as my friend — ever — but if I was in trouble I’d want to have him on my side. You want the nastiest lawyer around, but you don’t want to eat dinner with him afterwards.”

Zombro stepped down as president of the SDEA in 2010 and now serves as the union’s vice president. As executive director, however, Leedham has taken Zombro’s fervor a step further, Capitelli and other former and current union officials said.

They said he has created an atmosphere of tension and even fear among union staff, who have been warned that they must represent the district’s hardline philosophy.

That high-strung approach has at times spilled outside of the four walls of the teachers union.

At a union committee meeting in 2010, Leedham exploded with rage at a school district staffer who was whispering while he was making a presentation, three people present at the meeting said.

Leedham launched into a profanity-laden tirade at the staffer that shocked the union reps present in the room, the three sources said.

“I’ve been in this business for more than three decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was totally unprofessional,” said one of the sources, who did not want to be named because of their ongoing relationship with the teachers union.

Leedham and Zombro both declined to be interviewed for this story.

Fomenting Distrust

Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego Unified CFO Ron Little presents the district’s budget to the school board in January.

If the SDEA’s new direction has been driven by leaders like Zombro and Leedham, the wheels for that move have been greased by the district’s own actions.

Through a combination of ineptitude, poor communication and a failure to properly explain its complex budget process, district leaders have given the SDEA fertile ground to attack their credibility.

School board trustee Richard Barrera remembers, for example, the budget negotiations of his first term in 2008.

“Literally, in one week, there was a revision of our numbers that made a $180 million problem turn into a $100 million problem almost overnight,” Barrera said.

Revisions and recalculations like these cemented the view for the union’s leaders that the district didn’t have a good handle on its finances, Barrera said.

These budget faux pas were also being noticed by the union’s members.

Deborah Hoeltgen, a current SDEA board member, said the notion that the union’s leaders have pushed the union in a certain direction is false.

Hoeltgen said the power wielded by the union’s executive director and president is overplayed. She said the organization is truly run by its members, who control the union’s bargaining tactics. Those members have spent the last few years getting increasingly upset and frustrated with the district, Hoeltgen said.

Every year for the last few years, the district has issued hundreds of pink slips to teachers, only to then rescind the bulk of the layoff notices a few weeks later. That’s grated on teachers, Hoeltgen said.

“They’re pissed off,” she said.

The rise of the union’s new leaders also coincided with the ouster of controversial superintendent Alan Bersin, whose near-decade of reforms fueled dissent among teachers during the state’s last financial crisis.

The “Bersin Era” as it is referred to in San Diego Unified circles, caused deep divisions between the district’s leadership and its staff. Though many of the senior officials who served under him have now moved on, the wounds inflicted by Bersin’s tenure are yet to fully heal.

More recently, California’s complicated budget procedures have helped perpetuate the district’s image among teachers as a bumbling, misinformed bureaucracy.

For each of the last four years, the district’s initial budget forecasts have predicted doom, gloom and hundreds of teacher layoffs. Each year, thanks to a combination of risky budgeting by the district and financial shenanigans by the state, the eventual pain has been limited.

The union has responded by calling out the district’s accountants as charlatans, arguing that the district has consistently lied about its budget in order to win public approval for layoffs.

That’s resonated with teachers and parents alike, who often show up at school board meetings to boo and hiss as financial staffers make their presentations.

This atmosphere of distrust has reached fever pitch in recent weeks as the state has continued to cut into education funding and the school board has again produced a budget calling for more than 1,000 layoffs.

When Times Get Tough, Get Tougher

File Photo by Sam Hodgson
Current SDEA President Bill Freeman has issued strongly worded rebuttals to the district’s latest budget projections.

Last October, as district officials started to raise the specter of insolvency, the union barely blinked. It’s so far refused to come to the bargaining table and shows no signs of changing that stance.

Political consultant Larry Remer, who has worked extensively with the union, said its position has served it well. It’s currently sitting on a contract that guarantees teachers raises as Gov. Jerry Brown threatens billions in education cuts.

And despite the district’s threats, only a couple of hundred teachers have actually ended up losing their jobs, Remer said. Instead, the brunt of layoffs has been borne by classified employees like landscapers and custodians.

“The classified union has been a lot more reasonable and what good has it done them?” Remer said.

But as the teachers union remains silent, the chorus of voices speaking out against its dogmatic methodology, even within labor circles, has started to grow.

Jeannie Steeg, former executive director of the school administrators union, said the district’s senior financial team isn’t just frustrated, it’s seriously worried about keeping the district afloat over the next couple of years.

“There’s no hidden agenda,” Steeg said. “The teachers union has to, at some point, realize that these numbers are real.”

Whitlow, Capitelli, members of the school board, senior district management and even officials at the administrators union couldn’t agree more. They said the time has come for the SDEA to stop pretending and to start engaging in the realities of the district’s crisis.

For their part, the teachers union could be thinking the same thing.

But they’re not talking.

Correction: This article originally stated that counselors are “classified” employees. That is incorrect. Counselors, like teachers, librarians and nurses require a certificate from the state of California to perform their job. As such, they are known as “certificated” employees, and are represented by the SDEA. Classified employees do not require a qualification from the state. I regret the error.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at currently focused on local education. You can reach him at or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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