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In his first full interview with us in months, teachers union President Bill Freeman answered criticism from a former union president, laid out the union’s reasoning for opening discussions with the district and held firm on his view that teachers shouldn’t have to make concessions to close San Diego Unified’s budget deficit.

I got Freeman on the phone for a complete conversation after months of trying. A few months ago, after we ran this story, the union vowed to never talk to Voice of San Diego again. With significant changes in union leadership, that ban has been lifted.

Here are the two big takeaways from that conversation:

• Under Freeman’s leadership, the union is talking to the district more and more.

Freeman was very clear on something: Just because the San Diego Education Association is now meeting more regularly with district officials, it’s not in negotiations with the district over possible concessions to close the district’s looming budget deficit.

But at the same time, Freeman said the union is talking more and more with district officials. That’s because the union’s representative council voted to “open lines of communication with the district,” Freeman said.

As we have extensively reported, under Zombro and Leedham’s leadership, the union became hard-line and isolated, a trend that worried former SDEA leaders, who wanted the union to be engaged in seeking solutions to the ongoing budget woes.

Here’s what Freeman said:

I don’t mind listening to the district and I don’t mind the district communicating with the SDEA, but that communication is not in the form of negotiations.

I think it’s very important that we’re able to talk to them more. I don’t think we should go off into our caves and turn our backs on them. I think we can talk, but we need to remain focused.

• Freeman says the union shouldn’t have to make concessions to solve the district’s budget problems.

Freeman’s view: The union didn’t create the district’s budget mess, so it shouldn’t be expected to solve it by making concessions.

As we illustrated in this graphic, however, a big reason the district is in so much trouble over the next couple of years is the direct result of the 2010 deal the school board made with employee unions. That deal gives teachers a series of pay raises beginning July 1, in exchange for teachers taking five unpaid days off for each of the last two years.

The district is pleading with the union to roll back or at least delay those pay raises to avoid laying off more than 1,600 employees.

Freeman said the union also won’t offer concessions because the district’s budget is still based on projections. Nobody knows what the district’s budget will look like in the summer, he says, so the union shouldn’t make concessions.

“Our members’ financial livelihood should not rest on the assumptions of the district,” he said.

I asked Freeman whether the union would consider making a deal with the district that looks something like this: If the district’s projections end up coming true, then the union will agree not to take pay increases. If it doesn’t, teachers get to keep their pay raises.

He said something very interesting.

“We’ve never before let them go to the cliff,” he said. “But we can’t say that — we can’t say that ‘if this or that happens, then we’ll open our pockets,’ because we would end up losing in that deal.”

Freeman argued that the last time the union made a deal with the school board, in 2010, the board ended up reneging on that deal. Teachers took a pay cut to save the district money for two years and now it’s time for them to collect on their end of the deal, the district’s trying to get out of its obligations.

Freeman’s worried that would happen again if the union was to sit down now with the district. He’s worried that whatever deal the union might agree to, the district would find a way to worm out of it further down the line.

Freeman also said that his union’s main focus is ensuring that San Diego’s children get the best education possible. He said this several times throughout our interview.

I asked how, then, the union can promote giving teachers a pay raise at the expense of hundreds of their colleagues losing their jobs. If hundreds of teachers are laid off, kids will ultimately suffer, especially since layoffs generally hit underperforming schools hardest.

Again, Freeman demurred, saying it’s not the union’s job to solve the district’s financial problems.

While that may be true, it’s clear that the ball is now firmly in the union’s court.

The clock is ticking towards the final implementation of the 1,600-plus layoffs. The school board will vote tonight on whether to issue final layoff notices. Once those notices go out, the layoffs can no longer be rescinded. Instead, employees will have to be recalled — essentially rehired.

The district says the only way to start the next school year without those job losses is for the union to come up with a deal on concessions.

Freeman said he won’t let the district get to the cliff, but it’s already there.

Whether the union president, his power now unfettered by powerful opponents within his organization, will be instrumental in pulling the district back, remains to be seen.

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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