San Diego Teachers Throw Out Radical Union Leader

SAN DIEGO – By the end of June, one in five San Diego public school teachers might be out of a job. That grim reality has educators scared for their economic futures.

That explains why the San Diego teachers union voted in March to replace a radical union leader known for sparring with school officials with a moderate consensus-builder.

Outgoing teachers union Vice President Camille Zombro is one of two people widely blamed for turning the San Diego Education Association "into a hardline organization that’s become ever more confrontational," reports VoiceofSanDiego.org.

The other hardline union leader, Craig Leedham, was also recently removed from power. Leedham served as the SDEA's former executive director until union officials removed him from office for allegedly physically threatening staff members, reports VoiceofSanDiego.com.

Leedham had earned a reputation for his harsh leadership style, which reportedly involved numerous profanity-laced tirades.

Under Zombro and Leedham's leadership, the SDEA had become "the bullies on the block," according to one insider.

Over the past several years, Zombro has used San Diego schools’ ongoing financial drama to drive a wedge between the teachers and district officials.

The vast majority of the district’s revenue comes from the state, so when lawmakers announce that K-12 funding will be frozen or cut due to California’s persistent budget problems, district officials respond by issuing layoff notices to hundreds of teachers.

District officials say all or most of the layoffs could be cancelled if the union accepts concessions, but Zombro was never interested.

Zombro claims the district has a secret pot of money which makes the annual threat of layoffs unnecessary. She charges officials with using the threat of layoffs as an underhanded way of scaring union members into making wage or benefit concessions.

That radical pose seemed to play well with SDEA members – until the enormity of California’s budget crisis sank in. California has a $16 billion debt, and the San Diego Unified School District is facing its own $122 million deficit. District officials cannot expect lawmakers to come through with last-minute K-12 dollars as they have in the past. Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown is promising massive school spending cuts if voters don’t approve his tax hike proposal in November.

That has teachers very nervous.

"When I got my pink slip, I didn’t really worry since I’ve been with the district so long – 12 years," elementary teacher Kimberly Bazon told UTSanDiego.com. "But now … not one pink slip has been rescinded, I’m starting to get a little worried."

San Diego teachers suddenly seem willing to work with the district in finding ways to avoid the scheduled 1,666 teacher layoffs – which include six former "Teacher of the Year" winners. That new willingness undoubtedly led them to reject Zombro’s bid for re-election.

Job security trumped left-wing politics, leaving Zombro a fierce critic of the union she's helped lead since 2006.

'A tug-of-war' over union’s future

Earlier this month, Zombro took the dramatic step of issuing a public letter to SDEA members as she prepares to step down as vice president. In her lengthy email, Zombro acknowledges there has been "a tug-of-war within the office over the fundamental direction of our union" and charges that SDEA President Bill Freeman "is driving out the opposition."

Zombro brags about her role in securing the SDEA’s current "five-year closed contract with new workload protections and a seven-percent pay increase" – the very things that are bleeding the district dry – and criticizes Freeman for failing to wage an aggressive fight against the school board over "the unnecessary layoffs."

"For the first time in five years, I believe our union leadership may be on the verge of accepting deep wage and benefit cuts, allowing massive layoffs, or possibly both …," Zombro writes.

Zombro is still clinging to the notion San Diego school officials are fudging the numbers and sitting on piles of cash. But other union leaders are abandoning that claim.

Former SDEA Vice President Marc Capitelli "stepped down from his leadership position at the teachers union about a year ago" after concluding that "he couldn’t keep repeating the SDEA’s claims about the district’s budget in good conscience," VoiceofSanDiego.com reports.

"I could no longer honestly say that the district was hiding money," Capitelli told the news site.

Capitelli said SDEA leaders were not interested in in hearing dissenting points of view, or in negotiating with the district, so he decided it was time to resign, VoiceofSanDiego.com reports.

‘This could get really interesting’

Zombro’s recent electoral defeat gives some individuals hope that the SDEA is willing to work with school officials to find a budget solution that doesn’t result in 20 percent of San Diego’s teachers becoming jobless by the end of June.

SDEA President Freeman has repeatedly said that no concessions are imminent, but San Diego school board president John Lee Evans seems optimistic.

"Bill Freeman … has repeatedly said this year that the union will not stand by and watch the district falter," Evans writes in an email to VoiceofSanDiego’s Will Carless.

Evans is hopeful the two sides can come together and strike a "deal within the next few weeks."

But if Zombro’s defeat is seen as a silver lining to the budget crisis, her farewell letter might signal that more storm clouds are looming.

In the final portion of her email to SDEA members, Zombro urges teachers to "step up" their involvement and "stay involved." She also alerts them to the "Breakfast Club," a newly formed group of teachers "who are working together to push back against layoffs AND concessions – the core of the SDEA agenda – and I will be proud to start getting involved with their efforts as they grow."

Zombro acknowledges the "Breakfast Club" will be discredited by SDEA leaders as a "splinter group" but follows that by providing a link to the group’s website. Articles on the "Breakfast Club" website include: "YOU are the employer," "Why organizing matters," and "Why the [California Teachers Association] is really our 'frenemy.'" That's a clear indication of the group's strong leftist views.

" … Zombro appears to be calling on her union brothers and sisters to step away from the SDEA and join this new group that she may be willing to lead," Carless writes. "This could get really interesting."

For now, San Diego teachers seem more interested in keeping their jobs than furthering the far-left’s "us-versus-them" political agenda. But when the current financial crisis has passed, Zombro and the other hardliners will be back.

Stay tuned.


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