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Craig Leedham, the outspoken and controversial executive director of the San Diego Education Association, is no longer working at the union’s headquarters in Mission Valley.

The union confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Leedham had been placed on leave. “San Diego Education Association Executive Director Craig Leedham is on paid administrative leave. It is inappropriate for further comment at this time about what is an internal matter,” President Bill Freeman said in a brief statement.

The union didn’t explain the reasons behind the move.

As the SDEA’s top staffer, Leedham has been a divisive figure. Along with SDEA Vice President Camille Zombro, he has been credited with pushing the union towards a more hard-line, confrontational approach in its dealings with the San Diego Unified School District.

Leedham was hired as the union’s executive director in 2009. According to the SDEA’s tax records, he received total compensation of $226,367 in 2010.

As I outlined in this story last month, the union has become increasingly isolated in recent years, and former SDEA leaders have publicly voiced concern about the union’s confrontational approach.

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

Three sources interviewed for that story also described an outburst by Leedham at a multi-union committee as indicative of his divisive behavior:

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.

Former Vice President Mark Capitelli had this to say about Leedham when I interviewed him for last month’s story:

“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.”

The decision to place Leedham on leave was made by the SDEA’s board of directors and comes at a crucial time in district-union negotiations.

Last week, District Superintendent Bill Kowba and school board President John Lee Evans held a press conference in which they called on the union to get in contact as soon as possible. District leaders want the union to consider a slew of concessions that could save as much as $50 million and, they say, could allow the district to avoid hundreds of layoffs.

So far, the union hasn’t budged.

Meanwhile, there have been grumblings about the union’s leadership from local teachers in the wake of the union’s apparent backtracking on its cooperation with the district to extend the March 15 deadline for issuing layoff notices to teachers.

Freeman, the president, at first supported the legislation. Indeed, the bill was created by Assemblyman Marty Block after Freeman called Block and pledged support for it.

A day after putting out a press release saying it would support the legislation, however, the SDEA backed off, saying it wouldn’t support the bill without a guarantee that no teachers would be laid off.

Then the union again changed its position. Freeman told San Diego CityBeat that the SDEA would not oppose the legislation, but stopped short of saying the union would support it.

These erratic shifts in direction have led individual teachers to call on the union to sharpen its message and to reinstate support for the legislation, which could lead to a delay in teachers being issued pink slips.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

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

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