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Nearly 5,000 Petaluma City School students sat out classes on Wednesday as their teachers conducted a one-day strike, picketing outside campuses in an unprecedented escalation of their tense labor dispute with the school district.

The absences on Wednesday constituted about 65 percent of the student body, according to district officials. They had hoped that 75 percent of students would show up to school during the strike. Daily attendance for the district averages between 93 and 95 percent.

The labor action, which included about 90 percent of the 360 teachers represented by the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, comes as contract talks have stalled. It’s the first work stoppage since the union formed in 1969.

At the Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley, several dozen parents and teachers on Wednesday paced in front of the campus with signs reading “Petaluma teachers deserve dignity and respect,” and “We support our teachers.”

Carrie Caudle, a Cherry Valley teacher and union leader, said she hoped the one-day action would send a message to the district about negotiating with its faculty.

“We’re hoping the district will take a good hard look at the manner in which the district treats teachers, specifically at the bargaining table,” she said. “They need to show teachers the respect they deserve.”

The teachers have been working without a contract for almost a year and on Monday rejected the district’s latest offer, which included retroactive 2 percent pay raise covering the current school year.

In addition to pay, other issues in the talks include limits on early retirement options affecting part-time workers and a dispute over class sizes, both dealt with in side agreements that haven’t satisfied teachers.

“They had a concern that this was just kicking the can down the road,” said Sandra Larsen, union president. “This is the time to make sure things change in the district.”

District Superintendent Gary Callahan said he would like to be able to increase teacher pay, but larger raises aren’t possible because of a state-mandated increase in the district’s payments into employee pensions.

“As I talk to other superintendents through the state, it’s the same issue we’re all facing with pension reform,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s taken so much money off the table. ... In our minds, we negotiated a really fair offer that we’re still going to have to figure out a way to pay for.”

In a written statement following the strike Wednesday, Callahan claimed the district had yet to hear “any specifics” from the union as to why its latest offer was rejected. “This is highly unusual in labor negotiations and is representative of unfair bargaining on behalf of the federation,” he said.

The strike comes after the Petaluma Federation of Teachers filed a complaint last week — before the most recent contract offer — contending the district has pursued unfair labor practices, including threats to document teachers who engage in union activities.

State labor law prohibits contract-related strikes by public employees during contract negotiations, but union officials say their complaint pending before the state Public Employees Relations Board serves as legal cause for the one-day action.

David Fichera, communications coordinator for Petaluma City Schools called the teachers’ allegations “unsubstantiated.”

“If we had settled a contract, then we wouldn’t be striking,” he said. “They have to use the unfair labor practices (rationale) ... in order for them to legally strike.”

Larsen said the teachers’ plan for a strike evolved separately from their discontent over the terms on offer by the district.

“It is not about money,” she said. “It is about respect. It is about negotiating fairly, and, quite frankly, it is about the future.”

As of Wednesday, no bargaining sessions were scheduled for the two sides.

Argus-Courier Editor Matt Brown contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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