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It’s been a hectic couple of months over at the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents some 7,000 San Diego Unified teachers.

The union is right in the thick of the battle over the district’s troubled finances. With the district estimating that it faces an $80 million to $120 million deficit next year, school leaders are pleading with the SDEA to give up future pay raises, continue taking five unpaid days off and accept cuts to their benefits package.

So far, those pleas have been ignored. But there have been two big changes recently in the union’s leadership, and there are some early signs that the union may start to move away from what has been an increasingly hard-line, isolated philosophy in the last few years.

A lot has happened, quickly, so let’s take a look at the key issues:

Why the Union’s Role Is So Important

You might want to start by watching this short video explainer on the union that we made in conjunction with our media partners at NBC 7 San Diego.

The school district is in a big financial mess. At the core of this mess is a basic problem: The district says it won’t have enough money next year to pay all the salaries and benefits it currently owes under its contracts with its various labor unions. The district’s initial estimate is that it will be $80 million to $120 million short next year.

The district says it has two ways to deal with this: Lay off at least 1,000 teachers, administrators, counselors and other staff, or convince the unions to re-write their contracts and make concessions on their pay and benefits.

The SDEA is by far the district’s biggest union, larger than all the other unions combined. So it’s the player everybody is watching.

So far, the union hasn’t wavered from its position: It says the district’s budget numbers are make-believe, and says it won’t sit down and talk to the district until state legislators come up with a projected budget later this year.

Meanwhile, layoff notices have gone out to some 1,600 employees. If those pink slips become final, class sizes would swell and schools would end up with fewer nurses, counselors and other support staff.

Layoffs tend to hit schools in lower socio-economic areas hardest because those schools typically have more young, inexperienced teachers, who are the first to be laid off under the district’s last-in, first-out rules.

So the union’s role in this whole process is crucial. If it agrees to concessions, other smaller employee unions are likely to follow suit. If the SDEA continues its hard-line approach, more than 1,000 teachers possibly get laid off.

How the Union’s Stance Developed

As I examined in this extensive story, the union has been taking an increasingly tough stance in recent years. It has cut off ties with a group of retired teachers, dropped out of committees with other unions and canceled regular meetings with district leaders.

That stance has concerned former SDEA officials, who told me they think the union’s increasingly isolationist approach has become counter-productive.

Those officials have been urging the union to at least sit down with the district and start talking about solutions to the district’s financial woes. That’s something school leaders have also called for. Last month, they held a press conference during which school board president John Lee Evans held up a telephone and urged the union to call.

As I discuss in my story, two people have been credited with pushing the union in this more militant direction: Vice president (and former SDEA president) Camille Zombro and SDEA executive director Craig Leedham.

In the last few weeks, both of those individuals have lost their grip on power. A month after my story ran, SDEA president Bill Freeman announced that Leedham had been placed on administrative leave. Two weeks after that, Zombro was voted out of office.

No reason was specified for removing Leedham from his post, and the SDEA wouldn’t say whether the removal will be permanent. But the fact that he’s no longer acting as executive director is significant. And it became even more significant when Leedham’s ally Zombro was voted out.

With Leedham and Zombro both out of the picture, the same former SDEA officials who came to me complaining about the union’s recent philosophy have been rejoicing. Former SDEA president Don Crawford said he was “ecstatic” about the news. Here’s what he told me the day Zombro was ousted:

“The SDEA went into a period of stagnation under Zombro,” Crawford said. “I think Bill Freeman has faced obstruction from both her and the executive director and now he’ll be able to fully take the reins with his new partner and move the union forwards.”

What To Watch For

So what happens next?

We’ll be watching to see whether the union softens its approach and agrees to sit down and start talking about possible concessions. And we’ll be curious to see if the union is willing to discuss other sticky subjects, like the last-in, first-out rule, or throwing its support behind an effort to change a law that requires school districts to issue layoff notices by March 15 every year.

There aren’t many clues yet as to how the newly configured SDEA will proceed.

Zombro’s replacement, Lindsay Burningham, told me she is looking forward to starting a dialogue with the school district. And, so far, Freeman has stopped short of stating absolutely that the union won’t negotiate.

There are some other signs of change, too.

When Zombro and Leedham were at the SDEA, the union had a strict policy of not speaking to voiceofsandiego.org. Last month, when both were still at the union, a clearly frustrated Freeman declined to answer my questions at a press conference.

I’m now in contact with both Freeman and Burningham. I’m hoping to sit down and talk with Freeman soon about the union’s future and about whether he would be willing to start discussing concessions with the district.

The next few months are going to be interesting.

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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