Deaf community pushes California School for the Deaf to build housing for teachers

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During the day, Mel Vezina supervises and mentors high school students who live on the California School for the Deaf campus in Fremont.

At night, he sleeps in his van.

A year ago, after working for more than a decade in school and living out of his van, Vezina saved up enough money to buy a house in Sacramento with the help of a roommate. He lives there on weekends, but to avoid the fatigue of long drives and soaring gas prices, he lives and sleeps in his van during the week.

He is not alone. Many of the school‘s teachers make long trips, or double up with family or roommates because they can’t afford housing nearby – or are in the same situation as Vézina.

“I made a big sacrifice to live in my van because there is no housing I can afford here,” signed Vézina, who is deaf. “I just want to make sure I can stay here at this job…I chose to work at the school to help the kids and the community, and that’s where I can use my skills to the fullest. “

FREMONT, CALIFORNIA – JULY 14: Clark Brooke, superintendent of the California School for the Deaf, walks past a mural by artist Roland Siguenza, at the school in Fremont, Calif., Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer /Bay Area News Group)

The staff situation has become so serious that the future of the school is in danger. To combat staff and teacher recruitment and retention issues, California Deaf community organizers, led by Ken Norton, 96, a former student dean and alumnus of the school, are leading an effort to build housing for teachers on part of the vacant housing. land owned by the state where the campus is located.

They are circulating a housing petition — signed by more than 1,500 people — addressed to Governor Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the California Department of Education and the Department General Services.

“We support the long-term solution of building staff housing on an available piece of state-owned land on the CSD-F campus,” the petition reads in part. “This housing would provide limited-term, low-cost housing for new and current staff so they have time to save for a down payment on their permanent housing.”

The California Department of Education owns the land and operates the school. The ministry would need to approve the proposal for it to proceed.

Maria Clayton, a spokeswoman for the department, said she received information about the request and is aware of the online petition, and the proposal is under review.

“We recognize and continue to focus on ways to approach teacher recruitment and retention,” Clayton said. “All of this will be taken into account as part of the review.”

The case highlights the impact of the local housing crisis on schools in the Bay Area – and special schools in particular. Salaries often do not keep up with the cost of living. The median selling price for a single-family home in Fremont was around $1.7 million in June, according to real estate brokerage Redfin.

Some details of the potential housing proposal were outlined in a 2020 letter from Norton to the California Department of Education. “On August 14, 2019, my son, Kurt, and I met Bruce Dorfman (co-founder of real estate development firm Thompson & Dorfman Partners) and Joanna Julian at their Mill Valley office,” Norton wrote. “We have been informed explicitly about the need for a feasibility study. The study can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 for the project to build 40 units at an estimated cost of around $18 million.

School superintendent Clark Brooke, who is deaf, has not officially backed a plan to build and provide teacher accommodation on the site, but said it could be pursued as a long-term solution .

FREMONT, CALIFORNIA - JULY 14: Organizers, led by Ken Norton, a 96-year-old graduate and former dean, hope this on-campus land can be used to build housing for faculty and staff at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, Calif., on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
FREMONT, CALIFORNIA – JULY 14: Organizers, led by Ken Norton, a graduate and 96-year-old former dean, hope this on-campus land can be used to build housing for faculty and staff at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, Calif. on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

It could take years to develop a housing plan, get state approval and build the houses, he said. And any housing proposal should also consider staff from Diagnostic Center North and California School for the Blind who reside on the same state-owned land, he said.

In the short term, Brooke said he has focused on raising salaries to maintain the quality of school-trained staff. The negotiation process for higher pay is managed by the California Department of Education and involves a staff union representative and state officials.

“It’s a complicated process, but we’ve asked for recruitment and retention (bonuses) on top of our regular salary,” Brooke said in an email. He added that while salaries at the school are comparable, adding extra dollars to help recruit and retain qualified teachers would help offset the high cost of living, but would not be considered. in pension calculations.

Meanwhile, current employees hit by the housing crisis in the Bay Area are scrambling to find affordable housing and make ends meet. Many of them are hard of hearing and said they would have difficulty finding employment elsewhere. And they feel attached to the Deaf community at school.

Brooke said the school was particularly hard pressed to recruit teachers and staff because there were no local training programs to help with specialist degrees in education of the deaf and hard of hearing. To teach CDS students, educators need the state’s specific teaching credential and must be fluent in American Sign Language, according to a job posting from the school. A Department of Education bargaining calendar lists a salary for teachers between about $61,000 and $104,000 per year. For support staff, supervisors and administrators, the range is $35,000 to $45,000 per year, Brooke said.

Fewer people are applying to work at the school, and qualified applicants are turning down jobs more often due to the salary and cost of living in the area, Brooke said.

Many students enrolled in the school have hearing parents, so living on campus with other deaf people provides a sense of community and belonging.

Vézina said his role as a chalet counselor makes this possible. But during a roundtable with teachers and staff in mid-July, he signed off that there was no way he could afford a house or even a one-bedroom apartment in the area. , several people around the table agreed.

FREMONT, CALIFORNIA - JULY 14: Bianca Hamilton-Miller, ASL immersion teacher at California School for the Deaf, points out the school in Fremont, Calif., Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group )
FREMONT, CALIFORNIA – JULY 14: Bianca Hamilton-Miller, an ASL immersion teacher at the California School for the Deaf, signals the school in Fremont, Calif. on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Elementary school teacher Bianca Hamilton-Miller signed that she and her husband, a night watchman at the school, pay $2,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment nearby. But she’s worried they won’t be able to keep up with the rent increases this year.

“I love working here. And I really want to continue working here. But with the cost of living, I’m not sure I can afford it. said Hamilton-Miller.

Their stories continue to ignite a fire in Norton, who is deaf, to aggressively find solutions to keep the state’s school for hearing-impaired children alive.

“I think staying here with an on-campus housing solution will address the issues,” Norton said. “I don’t want people to think the school’s solution is to move. Staying here in Fremont is the best place for school and students.

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