Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 | Few people in San Diego Unified are neutral when it comes to Camille Zombro, the provocative leader of the teachers union, and Zombro is rarely neutral herself.
Young, smart and blunt, she strides purposefully to the microphone at school board meetings to demand a halt to testing, denounce budget cuts as “immoral and appalling,” or decry “scare tactics” used by the superintendent. Mild diplomacy is not her business — nor does she want it to be.
“I don’t know how to not be direct,” Zombro said one afternoon in her office, seated under a massive photo of former union President Marc Knapp and an inspirational poster that shows a river cutting through a canyon and the word PERSEVERANCE. “I’ll say what I think.”
She has been the most prominent face of the union as it gains a stronger foothold in San Diego Unified, a change that has proved daunting for Superintendent Terry Grier. She was at the helm when the union poured time and money into the school board race, tipping its balance toward labor. It translated into a sea change in school politics: Teacher layoffs were all but forbidden this year as the board grappled to close its budget gap. Grier has slowed his pace, taking his cues from a board sympathetic to labor.
Those are the fruits of organizing for Zombro, who has personally visited every school in the sprawling district, trying to rally teachers in the more public, more populist tactics of community organizing. It is a shift for the San Diego Education Association, which historically shied from even calling itself a union, like many teachers unions across the country.
Backers say she is focused, dynamic and savvy, with a mindset that goes beyond pay and benefits to the workings of the classroom. Critics call her unreasonable and uncivil, saying she blocks change and holds discussions hostage.