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A former faction of the San Diego Education Association that represents retired teachers is hoping the recent suspension of teachers union Executive Director Craig Leedham becomes permanent.

As I reported this week, Leedham has been placed on administrative leave. A divisive staff leader, he was credited by several former SDEA officials as pushing the union in a more combative, hard-line direction in recent years.

Two members of the retired teachers group said Leedham was the primary reason their group split with the SDEA.

Tim Jenkins, who acts as a liaison between the retired teachers group and the SDEA, said there are members of the union’s leadership who don’t support collaboration between the union and his group. But Jenkins expressed optimism that, if Leedham’s removal becomes permanent, wounds could be healed between the two organizations.

“It remains to be seen if we could go back to where we were before, but we certainly hope this could move us closer together,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins also expressed hope that he would no longer have to work with Leedham. In the years he has communicated with the executive director, he has found him to be extremely aggressive, rude and unprofessional, Jenkins said.

That jibes with what other people have told me about Leedham and what I have so far written about his leadership.

To make his point, Jenkins told an anecdote about a meeting his group held with SDEA leaders a couple of years ago. He said his wife, who is also on the retired group, tried to ask Leedham a question at the end of the meeting.

“He just started shouting and waving his hands in her face,” Jenkins said. “It was completely unprofessional. She didn’t know what to say.”

The retired group also put out a brief press release yesterday that sought to explain its position in the light of our recent coverage of the union’s inner workings. The release included a statement from Norma Heeter, president of the group.

Here it is in full:

San Diego Education Association-Retired has had a long and positive history with the San Diego Education Association for many years. Our members wished to maintain ties with our local, state and national affiliations by continuing to support public education and issues important to our active colleagues. Our members share the concerns of our active brothers and sisters in their efforts to support the physical, social, and academic growth of the children of San Diego.

The members of SDEA-Retired are very concerned and disappointed with the separation of our organization from SDEA. We fought hard to stop the efforts of a few current leaders to remove the retired educators’ representation in SDEA, but we ultimately lost the battle. Separation from SDEA has resulted in frustration for retirees, since we no longer have a venue or support for the voice of current and future retirees. We are concerned, because we have no advocates for issues of importance to retirees, such as health benefits, pensions, etc. Our efforts to represent ourselves on District committees that deal with health benefit issues including the Health Benefits Trust have been blocked by SDEA.

The members of SDEA-Retired hold the members of the SDEA in the highest esteem. After all, we helped build the organization, monetarily, voluntarily and intellectually.

Leedham’s permanent removal from the union would have consequences beyond the SDEA’s relationship with the retired group.

Currently, district leaders are calling on the SDEA to negotiate with them over possible concessions in teacher pay and benefits. District Superintendent Bill Kowba says those concessions are the only way to avoid laying off at least 1,000 teachers this year.

Under Leedham’s tenure, the union has withdrawn from negotiations or even discussions with the district and other unions. The organization has, as a result, become increasingly isolated in its stance.

Leedham, along with union Vice President Camille Zombro, have led the charge on this shift.

Zombro is up for re-election this spring and is being challenged by the union’s board secretary.

If Leedham’s removal becomes permanent, that election could be pivotal in determining the philosophical direction the union takes in the coming months and years.

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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