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I’m checking up on various recent high-profile stories at the moment, to see how those stories have progressed since we first reported on them.

Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks researching and writing about the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents local teachers. I wrote about the union’s move towards a more hard-line, isolationist philosophy over the last few years, and I covered a couple of big shifts in leadership at the SDEA.

The union’s being watched very closely at the moment because of the dire fiscal situation at the district. San Diego Unified issued more than 1,600 layoff notices to employees in March in order to close a projected deficit of at least $80 million. District officials say the only way to avoid those layoffs is for all employee unions to make concessions on their pay and benefit packages.

A large chunk of that projected $80 million deficit is due to a pay raise currently owed to educators that the school board agreed to in 2010. It comes into effect later this year.

The teachers union is far and away the biggest of those unions, and the school board, teachers and parents are all waiting to see if the recent ouster of two hard-line leaders will result in a softer stance from the union.

Let’s take a look at what’s been happening:

Where We Left It

In March, controversial union Vice President Camille Zombro was voted out of office. Zombro’s ouster followed the removal of SDEA Executive Director Craig Leedham from his position two weeks earlier.

Zombro and Leedham were the architects of the SDEA’s shift towards its more hard-line stance. Under their leadership, the union cut off almost all non-formal communications with the district, drifted apart from fellow unions and even cast off an affiliated group of retired educators.

As detailed in this story, the union’s shift worried several former SDEA officials, who considered the isolationist approach largely counter-productive and urged the union to work with the district to forge solutions to the current crisis.

With Leedham out and Zombro coming to the end of her term, I’ve been watching for a thawing in relations between the union and the district.

Incoming Vice President Lindsay Burningham told me in March that she wanted to push the union in a more “positive direction.” And SDEA President Bill Freeman began to soften his rhetoric.

What’s Happened Since

District officials and board members have told me there has been no movement when it comes to discussing concessions. The union is not meeting with the district to negotiate at all, they said.

Burningham confirmed this Wednesday. But she said there have been several other positive steps forward. Union reps are meeting regularly with district personnel to talk about a whole host of things, she said.

“We’re communicating about the budget, being able to ask and answer questions, and move forward in other areas,” Burningham said. “In some areas, the communication has opened up a little more, as people are more comfortable speaking with each other.”

There are also other recent signs that the union’s ready to start working with the district to find a solution to the fiscal crisis.

During two-and-a-half minutes of public comment to the San Diego Unified School District board meeting Tuesday night, SDEA President Bill Freeman used the phrase “come together” three times.

Freeman also said the district and the teachers union need to “join together.” “We can do it together,” he said at another point. “We’re willing to help you,” he said a minute later. “We’re willing to join in with you,” he concluded.

Freeman’s words marked a subtle, but important shift in the San Diego Education Association’s stance: The SDEA has spent the last few years explicitly blaming the school board for the stress being placed on local schools, but Freeman said on Tuesday that the board’s not to blame.

Rather, the board members are “hatchet people” for the state, he said.

However, Freeman also told the school board on Tuesday that concessions are “not the answer” to fixing the district’s deficit problem. He didn’t elaborate or dwell on that point.

Everyone I’ve spoken to has said we’re unlikely to see the union overtly change its stance on concessions until the summer, if at all.

What’s Next

Freeman has said a couple of times that the union won’t even consider sitting down to talk with the district until state lawmakers have drawn up a preliminary budget in the summer.

Until then, he says, the district’s numbers are just make-believe, since it doesn’t know how much money will be coming down the pike.

The district gets the bulk of its money directly from the state, which has a history of both delaying money for schools and playing last-minute budget shenanigans that confuse everybody and make school funding uncertain for local districts.

But the union now faces a dilemma: If it waits for the state to announce its budget before beginning negotiations, it would leave very little time to hatch a deal that could rescind layoffs before the beginning of the school year.

On the other hand, if the union sits down with the district before the state comes out with a budget, it will be publicly acknowledging that there is a real, non-make-believe problem. That would be a shift from its previous public position.

That’s why Freeman’s comments on Tuesday are so interesting: They look a lot like an olive branch to the district, with Freeman both acknowledging there is a real budget problem, and offering the union’s help to fix it.

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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