Petaluma teachers to strike in face of labor dispute

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Hundreds of teachers will be marked absent Wednesday as part of a daylong strike brought on by a labor dispute with Petaluma City Schools.

The district’s teachers have been without a contract for nearly a year. The main point of contention is a pay increase that district leaders say isn’t possible because of state-mandated increase in pension contributions.

“As I talk to other superintendents through the state, it’s the same issue we’re all facing with pension reform,” said Gary Callahan, superintendent of Petaluma City Schools. “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. ... We’re hoping that they’ll reconsider.”

The Petaluma Federation of Teachers represents 360 permanent teachers across the district’s 18 schools, and their planned day of work stoppage is expected to not just disrupt what should be a normal minimum day, but also affect the student attendance rate.

David Fichera, communications coordinator for Petaluma City Schools, said attendance could be 75 percent of normal for the 7,500-student district. As such, the district is only bringing in about 200 teachers to replace the expected 360 absent educators. The district has a total of 415 teachers.

Usually when substitutes are called, teachers leave detailed classroom plans for them to follow. In this case, that won’t be happening. At the elementary level, classes will be consolidated and students will mostly work on art projects or activities related to service work, Fichera said. At the secondary level, students will likely be studying for finals week.

“We certainly hope our kids will attend because they’re going to get something out of the day, but it’s always a challenge when you don’t have your teachers,” Callahan said.

He could not estimate how much the planned strike will cost the district in funds lost from student absences and paying for substitute teachers.

At the beginning of May, Petaluma teachers spent a week working to contract — no work outside of paid hours. It was a move the union voted on to prevent a strike like Wednesday’s from being necessary.

Since being founded in 1969, the Petaluma Federation of Teachers has never had a walkout, according to a news release from the union.

“The administration needs to understand that the way it treats teachers impacts our ability to provide the best classroom environment for our students,” Sandra Larsen, president of the teachers’ union, said in the release. “It’s their choice. They could offer us the respect and fairness we deserve, as required by law, or they can take responsibility for the first ever strike in this district.”

Neither she nor the union’s chief negotiator returned multiple calls for comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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