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Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association, just called to respond to claims made yesterday in an extraordinary open letter from Camille Zombro, the former teachers union president.

In her letter, Zombro heaped criticism on Freeman, saying the union was close to offering concessions on pay and benefits, and claiming she and a fellow colleague were “purged” from the union because they refused to follow Freeman’s agenda for negotiating an agreement with the school district to solve its fiscal crisis.

Freeman characterized Zombro’s comments as “sour grapes,” and said several of the claims she made are “absolutely untrue.”

“It’s very unfortunate that Camille Zombro would do this during such troubling and difficult times,” Freeman said. “To take this divisive measure is very sad, particularly for someone who has supported her for many, many years.”

Sounding emotional and tired, Freeman said he would talk to me more tomorrow. But I managed to ask a couple of quick, specific questions.

I asked why SDEA Executive Director Craig Leedham was removed from his office. Leedham was placed on administrative leave in March and Zombro claimed that he had been forced out, with “no just cause or progressive discipline.”

Freeman would only say that Zombro’s claims are “absolutely untrue.” He said he would elaborate Wednesday on Leedham’s removal.

I also asked about Zombro’s claim that the union is close to making concessions. He said that was not accurate.

Freeman said the union’s representative council, made up of reps from around the district, voted overwhelmingly to open lines of communication with the district. Just because the union’s talking to the district doesn’t mean it’s going to make concessions, he said.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to have a more in-depth conversation with Freeman on Wednesday.

A couple of other follow-ups to the Zombro story:

The Breakfast Club blog, which was started to put pressure on the SDEA, and which yesterday featured Zombro’s letter, has a new post. This one is from union secretary-elect Michelle Sanchez, who claims that free speech is being stunted at the union.

Sanchez raises concern that the union is effectively seeking to censor “subversive” groups within it by changing its bylaws. She writes:

I honestly can’t believe what is happening to our union or that our leadership is spending time, energy, and money on this when we have more pressing issues to deal with like 1,700 laid off members! I assume that these bylaw changes are in response to Camille’s email, and the efforts of myself and a group of other SDEA members to found the Breakfast Club Action Group… A group we founded only after being told repeatedly at the membership meetings to go organize ourselves to fight against layoffs and keep our contract closed.

We are hardly “subversive,” as we have a public website, and have been explicitly organizing to pressure the School Board to recall layoffs while keeping their hands off of our contract. How can we be “subversive” if we agree with SDEA’s message of “No Concessions! No Layoffs!”?

• School board president John Lee Evans emailed me a statement in response to Zombro’s letter. Here it is in full:

It is not surprising that the union would be in turmoil in the midst of this economic crisis. This is difficult for all of us, including the school board.

I believe that the rank and file teachers want to make a deal to save our academic programs and to protect class size, as well as preserving jobs. Bill Freeman, the teachers’ union president has repeatedly said this year that the union will not stand by and watch the district falter. Even as long ago as last November President Bill Freeman and the then-Executive Director of the teachers’ union, Craig Leedham, both acknowledged to us the seriousness of the economic situation and that they would need to make a deal. They wanted to wait until the Governor’s proposal in January. When that did not look good, they wanted to wait until the May Revise.

The May Revise came in and it did not improve and is actually a little worse. Now is the time to sit down and talk about concessions to save our classrooms and to save jobs. Some people oppose collaboration and want to approach everything as us vs. them. This school district belongs to all of us (parents, teachers and employees, students and community members) and we have to come up with a local solution because Sacramento has shortchanged public education in the state budget. The November ballot measure is too late for next year.

We must work together as adults and not resort to extreme statements ranging from “there is no financial problem” to “the sky is falling in.” The truth is that this is a very difficult economic time and we need to work together, not against each other. The eleventh hour is approaching. We need to make a deal within the next few weeks.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego 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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