‘How can we survive?’: Labor talks worry deaf-school teachers in Fremont

‘How can we survive?’: Labor talks worry deaf-school teachers in Fremont

FREMONT — High school teacher Ty Kovacs flipped through photo boards on a recent morning at the campus library at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, stopping and pointing at a picture taken of the school’s basketball team in the late ’80s.

“That’s me,” said Kovacs, who wore No. 32 for the California School for the Deaf Eagles and graduated from the storied school in 1989.

Now, Kovacs fears the school’s future is at risk as teachers and staff bargain with the state for pay raises they say are desperately needed to keep up with the Bay Area’s high cost of living and fill positions as more and more educators consider leaving for competitive wages elsewhere or retiring.

“The school is going to be shut down,” he said, adding that the result would amount to “cultural genocide” because of the services the school offers deaf students.

Bargaining teams with Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents about 100,000 state workers — including those at California School for the Deaf-Fremont — have been negotiating with the state for a significant pay raise over a new three-year contract. Most recently, the union says it’s proposed a general 18.75% raise for its members. The state, the union says, has offered an 8% raise.

“We are more than confused by the state’s behavior, by their refusal to respond in a reasonable time frame to our proposals,” said Irene Green, vice president for bargaining, in a recent online update. “Some of our proposals were made more than a month ago, and our team — and the members of Local 1000 — are waiting.”

While negotiations continue at the bargaining table, union officials have called on workers to demonstrate today near the state Capitol in Sacramento, where Kovacs said he’ll join others in demanding higher wages. However, the prospects of a deal that satisfies Kovacs is “not looking good.”

California School for the Deaf teacher Ty Kovacs looks over historical photos displayed at the school’s Bay Area campus on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, in Fremont, Calif. Unionized teachers and staff at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont are fighting for higher pay in labor talks with the state, which funds the school. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Generally, the monthly base pay for teachers at State Special Schools — such as the California School for the Deaf campuses in Fremont and Riverside — ranges from about $4,280 to $7,920, depending on education and experience, according to the union’s previous contract, which expired at the end of June, and recent job postings. The contract included an additional monthly retention and recruitment bonus of $700 for those at the Fremont worksite.

Kovacs said teachers and staff are struggling to make ends meet in a region where a single earner making a six-figure salary can be considered low-income. The school, he said, has already lost teachers and counselors. And he added that about 175 employees are currently eligible to retire; he worries what will happen if there is a wave of departures coupled with little incentive to attract qualified candidates. Kovacs said the school employs about 360 teachers and staff.

“How can we survive?” asked Kovacs, who, like about 80% of his teacher colleagues, is deaf.

Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, said in an email that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond “is very engaged in the challenges our State Special Schools are facing and is working to help get a resolution to the contract and especially for (Department of Education) staff who live in areas with a high cost of living.”

Roark added that Thurmond supports legislation to bring more resources to such schools.

The California Department of Human Resources declined to comment, citing its practice of not discussing ongoing negotiations.

Founded in 1860 in San Francisco, the California School for the Deaf moved to Berkeley in 1869 and then to Fremont in 1980. It serves children and students from early childhood education to elementary school to high school. And it’s a place where students are immersed in a shared-language community rather than being shoehorned into a school designed for people who can hear. The student population last year was 318, according to state data. In 2019, it was 350.

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The school is a lifeline for students throughout Northern California, said William Fertman of Berkeley, whose 5-year-old son Oscar attends the Fremont campus. Fertman cited a body of work that shows children who are denied access to sign language at a young age face the risk of developmental delays. It’s a syndrome known as language deprivation, he said, and it can lead to lifelong struggles with reasoning and social skills.

For many students, whether they are day or boarding students, Fertman said, the Fremont school is their home. They are able to communicate with their peers more easily than with parents who don’t speak sign language well or at all. They are able to have role models, make friends and potentially avoid a type of isolation deaf students can suffer at other schools.

“At CSD, being deaf is not a disability. It just isn’t,” he said. “They get to be kids. They get to be jocks or brainiacs or all the roles that kids play. They get to be shy or outgoing or the class clown — whatever it is, they get to go do it.”

Fertman is worried about the school’s survival, and it’s why he said he’s watching labor negotiations closely and advocating for higher pay for the school’s employees.

“You cannot live on the salaries they are offering, and my kid and the kids at the school can’t live without the school,” he said. “That’s it. It’s really simple.”