Lorena Gonzalez wouldn’t say it.

No matter how hard she was prodded or pushed by the assembled reporters, region’s top organized labor leader would not directly say that San Diego Unified’s teachers need to consider making pay and benefit concessions to help avoid the more than 1,500 educator layoffs that were made final on Tuesday night.

“I’m not going to stand up here and negotiate for teachers,” Gonzalez said.

But Gonzalez, whose organization counts the teachers union as one of its members, painted around the issue so concisely at a press conference this morning that she left little doubt she expects concessions from teachers to be at least part of the solution to the layoff crisis.

Gonzalez said she has been involved in the annual battle over pink slips for the last three years, but that this year things are clearly different.

There are no magic bags of money that are suddenly going to appear from the state, she said. The school district may have some cash stashed away, but it’s not enough to solve the crisis, she added. And Gonzalez even hinted at how the teachers union could make concessions without opening its contract: By agreeing on a deal with the district that would overlap that contract, leaving it intact.

Gonzalez called the press conference “the hardest one of my career.” Indeed, it comes at tumultuous time for the San Diego Unified School District and the San Diego Education Association, the most powerful union in local education.

In recent days, the union has shown signs of fracturing.

A simmering schism at the teachers union burst out into public view this month. Vice President Camille Zombro and Executive Director Craig Leedham, both pushed out recently, created the union’s former hard-line bargaining approach and aren’t going quietly. On the other side, current President Bill Freeman has argued for open discussions with the district.

Gonzalez’s statements endorsed Freeman’s approach, but essentially urged him to go further.

She almost begged the union and the district to sit down immediately and start hashing out some sort of agreement to save teaching jobs. And she warned strongly against the brinksmanship advocated by Zombro and her followers.

“It doesn’t make any sense to play a game of chicken, it’s not going to work on either side,” Gonzalez said.

In doing so, Gonzalez has laid out a carpet for Freeman to walk on into the bargaining room. Despite opening up dialogue with the district, he’s so far continued to push back against any talk of concessions. At a time when teachers across the district are weighing which side to pick in this labor battle, Gonzalez’s endorsement doubtless carries significant heft.

Not that Gonzalez let the school district off the hook.

Her comments at the press conference, and her answers to follow-up questions, made clear she thinks the district has to do much more to convince teachers of the seriousness of its financial condition. Pressed on this, Gonzalez said that she doesn’t think the district is lying about the size of its deficit, but that she thinks it could do a much better job outlining the menu of options available to labor unions.

For example, Gonzalez said the district has been too slow to announce changes that would lead to it recalling some of the layoffs. She said she has asked school board members how many teachers have recently announced they will retire or take a leave of absence next year. She’s hasn’t gotten a response, Gonzalez said.

But the overwhelming message from Gonzalez and the other education leaders and parents who spoke at Thursday’s press conference was clear: San Diego’s teachers, and their union, need to be a big part of forging a solution to the district’s problems. And they need to snap to it.

We’ll be watching to see if Freeman ramps up his efforts to get those discussions going in the coming days.

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 was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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