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So, the San Diego Unified School District and its biggest labor union, the San Diego Education Association, have a deal.

The tentative agreement finalized last week will prevent more than 1,000 teacher layoffs, but could also result in the school year being shortened by as much as three additional weeks.

The deal’s a big one. Not just because it gets the district out of its latest financial bind, but also because it marks a significant change in direction for a powerful union that for years has been unwilling even to talk about helping the district out.

To understand the deal itself, its possible impacts, and why it marks such a historic moment for district-union relations, we’ve created this handy three-step guide:

Step One: What The Deal Says about the Union’s New Approach

The tentative agreement was approved overwhelmingly by educators last week, and it marked a big step in the teachers union’s recent change in direction and philosophy.

The union spent the last few years drifting away from both the district and many of its own members. Under hardline union President Camille Zombro and Executive Director Craig Leedham, the union canceled regular meetings with the district, split with a group of retired educators and became increasingly unwilling to budge when it came to negotiations.

That approach was tested, and ultimately broken, this year.

The ouster of both Leedham, who was fired, and Zombro, who was voted out as vice president earlier this year, allowed union President Bill Freeman to start guiding the SDEA in a new direction

(Leedham is now suing the union for wrongful dismissal).

Under Freeman’s leadership, the union conceded the district was in severe financial straits and educators stepped forward to help bail it out. It’s doubtful that would ever have happened under Zombro, who has been working with a union splinter group called The Breakfast Club to continue to pressure the SDEA to take a hardline approach in negotiations.

Notably, the tentative agreement also contains a section requiring the district and the union to form a joint committee to regularly meet and discuss budget issues, therefore rolling back much of the isolationism introduced during Zombro’s tenure.

As such, the union and district are moving closer towards the sort of relationship seen at another large county district: Poway Unified.

As we described in this piece, Poway’s teachers union and district leaders work together to solve budget problems.

The result: The district didn’t threaten to lay off any teachers this year, and won’t need to shorten the school year even if the tax initiatives fail in November.

Step Two: Understand The Deal and Its Possible Impact

First, watch this three-minute video explainer on the tentative agreement:

It may be helpful to think of the deal simply as a trade-off between concessions and layoffs.

Educators agreed to continue taking five unpaid days off and to forgo a series of pay raises the school board promised them two years ago. These concessions freed up enough money in the district’s budget to hire back a good chunk of the educators who had been laid off.

The other big concession educators made was to agree to take up to an additional 14 unpaid days off if voters fail to pass both of the two new tax measures on November’s ballot.

This was the most controversial element of the deal, and essentially constitutes a gamble by the school board that the taxes will pass. If they don’t, kids at the district will get three weeks less school next year. (Look for a full story on this part of the deal soon.)

If you want even more detail on the tentative agreement, check out our five key takeaways from the deal.

Step Three: Know the Recent Historical Context

The labor deal essentially wipes away what we have termed “the ticking time bomb” in the district’s budget.

Until the concessions from the SDEA, San Diego Unified was on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in raises it can’t afford. Now, it only has to pay those raises if and when the district starts to get more money from the state. That means the district has a lot more wiggle room in its budget for at least the next two years.

It’s worth noting that the concessions on the pay raises won’t mean any educators get paid less in the next school year than they did last year. Indeed, many of the teachers will still get automatic pay raises, known as “step and column” increases next year. Educators will, of course, end up getting paid less if the school year gets shortened and they work fewer days.

But the district’s off the hook for the big pay increases. With salaries and benefits constituting more than 90 percent of the district’s day-to-day budget, that’s a huge relief for the school board and San Diego Unified’s accountants, who a few weeks ago were very worried about how to pay the higher salaries not just in 2012-13, but every year into the future.

The ticking time bomb, for now at least, has been defused.

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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