The biggest surprise at the school board meeting Thursday night was that board President Richard Barrera — a labor organizer long seen as a union ally on the school board — ended up voting to warn teachers of layoffs.

Barrera himself told the crowd of teachers, counselors, nurses and other workers who packed the auditorium: “I am going to violate your trust in me tonight. I’m going to vote for the superintendent’s recommendations. Doing so goes against everything that I believe in.”

Teachers shouted, “So don’t do it!” Barrera continued: “I don’t think doing this is right. I don’t think doing this is smart.” And he believes the school district will end up canceling most or all of them anyway.

But school district staff warned that if San Diego Unified did not prepare for layoffs, the County Office of Education, which vets its budget plans, could stop them from borrowing money to pay its bills. That was what swayed Barrera to vote to start sending out pink slips. The teachers union has argued that the layoffs are unnecessary and based on faulty predictions.

“Shame on you Richard!” someone yelled from the back of the auditorium.

What makes this remarkable is that Barrera has been at the forefront of plans to avoid sending out pink slips, this year and in the past. Two months ago he was one of the board members who floated a bold and possibly risky plan that would bank on tax extensions or a quirk in the layoff laws to prevent warnings from going out. He has never voted for pink slips before. In earlier years, Barrera pushed to find other savings and dodged layoffs. From my 2009 story:

“I kept hearing (last year), ‘We’ve done everything we can possibly do and we have no other options than layoffs,'” said new school board member Richard Barrera. “And from our experience this year, that wasn’t true. We found more savings.”

Conservative critics have long pegged Barrera as a labor lackey for backing a union pact on school construction and opposing Race to the Top, a competition between states for federal stimulus money that put a premium on tying teacher evaluations to test scores. Now Barrera has seriously upset the teachers union, which denounced the decision on its website last night:

In violation of the trust placed in them by parents, educators and the broader San Diego community, Trustees Richard Barrera, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans voted to issue more than 1,000 absolutely unnecessary certificated layoff notices, with Superintendent Bill Kowba leading the chorus of fear-mongering and bad advice supporting their poor choice. Only Trustees Kevin Beiser and Scott Barnett had the courage of conviction to do the right thing and vote against layoffs. Should the Board’s absurd decision stand, our schools will simply cease to function…. Tonight Trustees Richard Barrera, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans violated our trust and took the easy way out.

Evans and Jackson are also being criticized, of course. Jackson tried to advance an alternative budget plan that would consolidate more central office departments. Evans also wrestled with the decision at the meeting Thursday, saying that while he agreed that the school district should resist the cuts, this wasn’t the time to do it, since it would cost them the control of the district.

“This is actually a decision that makes me very sick,” said Evans, who mentioned that he wore a black suit to the meeting because it felt like a funeral.

But Barrera was the surprise vote, the one that made people gasp in the auditorium. In some ways, it was a surprise to Barrera himself, who said he only made up his mind an hour before the board meeting.

“It’s something that I never thought I would agree to,” Barrera said. “But the other side would be effectively agreeing to someone who’s not elected by anybody” — the county superintendent — “coming in and probably making more severe budget decisions.”

The biggest frustration, he said, was the inflexibility of the rules that guide how school districts make their financial plans. That seems even more bizarre to Barrera since they’re dealing with projections and predictions — what Barnett once dubbed “a fantasy budget.”

For instance, the teachers union has argued that the school district could send out fewer pink slips if it factored in the number of teachers who will likely retire. Barrera agrees. But the school district staff say the County Office of Education won’t accept that as part of a budget plan.

“We are issuing way too many pink slips,” Barrera said. And it makes sense for the teachers union to protest that, even if it means protesting against him, Barrera said. “They should express outrage.”

So far I haven’t been able to reach the teachers union today to talk about its next steps. Their website mentions an “urgent action” today to hold the superintendent and three board members who voted for the layoff warnings accountable, but I haven’t heard what that action is.

UpdateI just got a call from teachers union President Bill Freeman. “We consider Richard to be one of us,” Freeman said. “I was truly surprised and disappointed.”

Freeman said that so far, the union representatives at each school have sent text messages to the three board members and superintendent. They now plan to rally the larger community around stopping the layoffs.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.