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SD Teachers Union President Talks About Life, Passion

Camille Zombro is a force to be reckoned with in the San Diego Unified School District. She's president of the local teachers union -- the San Diego Education Association. Her job is to make sure te

SD Teachers Union President Talks About Life, Passion

Camille Zombro is a force to be reckoned with in the San Diego Unified School District. She's president of the local teachers union -- the San Diego Education Association

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Her job is to make sure teachers get paid fairly and have clean, safe classrooms.    

KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis sits down with Zombro to find out what makes her tick, and the challenges ahead for teachers. 

Zombro doesn't fit the historic mold of a union boss. She's young, has a sweet face and gentle handshake. Her office is littered with small gifts from students and teachers. A large poster of a jolly-looking man hangs next to her desk. 

<b> Zombro: </b> That's Mark Knapp. He's the former president of SDEA. Mark passed away in January of last year. He was just a wonderful, very charismatic leader. So whenever I'm sitting here, and kind of stressed, Mark Cappitelli our vice president will point up there and say, he's laughing at you….(laughs).   
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Zombro chuckles now but says leading a teachers union is no laughing matter. She and the organization are lightening rods for criticism in the community. Some feel union contracts get in the way of school reform. Others say they complicate the hiring process.

But Zombro says that's just not the case.    

<b> Zombro: </b> Well, we hear it all the time. 'Oh it's the union,' or 'It's the union contract.' And I will always take the contract out, put it across the table and say, ‘Show me the page.’ And no one has ever showed us the page. 

San Diego's teachers union has roughly eight-thousand members.

Zombro herself is a teacher, but says organizing is in her blood. Her twin sister Carla is also a union leader in Los Angeles. Zombro says even as kids, she and her sister would take small steps to stand up for others. 

<b> Zombro: </b> When we were freshman in high school, we started an Amnesty International Chapter. I was only 13 years old, but the thought of being able to write letters and help people get out of prison in a foreign country -- its a really powerful thing as a teenager. 

Zombro moved to Texas for her first teaching job. It’s there where her union work really began. She mobilized parents to clean up drug-infested neighborhoods and secure money for afterschool programs. Zombro remembers one mom in particular from Mexico who was barely literate in English and Spanish.     

<b> Zombro: </b> That said though, she was a really great leader. She could inspire the parents around her and really rally the troops. And I remember we had one big community meeting where she had to speak and she had to read a written statement in Spanish. And she read it. And I think she was one of the people who inspired me about what organizing is about. It’s about helping people get to their potential and bringing other people along as well. 

But Zombro says of all the parents and teachers she's connected with, it’s a principal who really changed her life.    

<b> Zombro: </b> When I was kindergarten and first grade, my sister and I went Anderson Elementary in Clairemont, which has since been sold. But our principal those two years was Burt Wragg. Mr. Wragg moved over to Cleveland Elementary and that's when he was killed. 

Zombro asks to turn off the tape and grabs a tissue.

Wragg was shot and killed after a student opened fire on the San Diego school in 1979. He died when he was struck by bullets meant for kids who were in the line of fire. 

Zombro says Wragg always went the extra mile for his teachers and students. In fact, he helped Zombro cope when her older brother died. She was seven years old at the time.         

Zombro says she's tough on administrators because she had one of the best. She says she gets mad when administrators don't give teachers the empathy and respect they deserve. She feels this year's teacher layoffs are a great example of that.  

<b> Zombro: </b> I have to talk to single parents who are losing their jobs. I have to talk to people who are expecting children at the same time their health benefits run out. That's what I face every day. So when I got to school board meetings, its very upsetting to see these people who are so so grossly disconnected from those lives and from that reality.  

And the reality is more than 200 teachers will be out of jobs when the school year starts in September. 

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.