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Hundreds of John Swett High students walked out of their first-period classes Friday and marched on the Carquinez Bridge to protest school district budget decisions that include laying off a popular teacher.

Some of the 200 to 300 students wore T-shirts with a picture of history teacher Steve Trotter and clutched signs imploring the district to "Keep our educational inspiration, keep Trotter," leaving the Crockett campus about 8 a.m. They marched halfway across the bridge before Vallejo police officers forced them back, then they headed to the school district's office building in Rodeo four miles away, chanting "Trotter! Trotter!"

The district informed Trotter recently that his full-time teaching job at John Swett would be reduced to part time next year, forcing him to find work elsewhere. That angered many of his students, who say Trotter is the best teacher they've ever had.

"He's one of the most respected teachers in the school," said sophomore Johnny Zamba, 16. "We all just decided to stick up for him with a walkout. We'll do this again and again until they take away the pink slip."

The John Swett Unified School District board cut six full-time teaching positions a few weeks ago as part of $850,000 in budget reductions to offset Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to slice more than $4 billion from education statewide. The district -- which oversees John Swett High as well as Carquinez Middle School in Crockett and Rodeo Hills Elementary in Rodeo -- also has cut campus supervisors, computer lab assistants and secretaries, and is contemplating further reductions that could include music and athletics.

Students on Friday angrily swarmed the district headquarters parking lot, and many peppered Superintendent Michael Roth with budget questions when he emerged from the building.

One student egged the crowd on when he climbed to the roof.

Teachers who learned Thursday of the planned walkout warned students that they would fail their next test if they took part. But students walked anyway, and many at first declined to get on the buses provided by the district after the march was over. District officials announced to the crowd that anyone who did not go back to school would be marked truant for the day; by fifth period, about 12:30 p.m., most had returned to the school.

"My mom said I'm grounded, but it's worth coming out here," said Daniel Freeman, a 15-year-old sophomore.

While many students were upset about Trotter's likely departure, others said they are angry that the school board is not considering reductions elsewhere, such as cutting Roth's pay. Some said they also were marching in protest of the planned state budget cuts, which have pinched districts across California.

Trotter was not at the protest but said Friday afternoon that he was touched by the students' efforts.

"I was pretty shocked," he said. "I kind of avoided telling (my students) about the layoff notice because I was embarrassed, to be honest. They found out, though. I don't know how they did, and they got riled up. I'm definitely touched and impressed with their organization."

A John Swett High graduate who has taught at the school five years, Trotter said he cannot afford to stick around for part-time work because he has a baby and pregnant wife at home.

"If they offer me a full-time job, I'd stay, but I can't wait," Trotter said. "I'm already starting to look. I don't want to, but I have to."

Trotter said he wants to blame the state, but he also wonders why the district can't make room in the budget by using its large surplus.

Earlier this week, Trotter and several of his students sobbed as they pleaded with school board members to reconsider reducing his duties. Students say Trotter puts in long hours helping them with homework; he's volunteered to coach when no one else would and is a good friend to his students.

"I just think that we deserve good teachers, and I want you guys to realize he's one of the best teachers in that school," senior Precious Arnold said.

Trotter choked back tears before asking the board to "Please reconsider."

School board President Bill Concannon said Friday that he understands the students' pain, but noted that teachers are selected for layoffs based on seniority calculations per their contracts. The board has no say over who stays and who goes.

"We're faced with making really hard choices," Concannon said. "I would throw it back to the governor. The governor is responsible for this budget. He's the one who called for cuts; this is not the school board's doing."

Concannon said he hopes that the budget picture improves and the district will be able to rescind the layoff notice to Trotter and others. But he doubts the board will revisit it's decision to cut teaching staff.

"I was very disappointed to hear that Mr. Trotter was the one who received a reduction-in-force notice," Concannon said. "I know him, and I have a lot of respect for him."

Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at kwetzel@bayareanewsgroup.com.