The Mercury News
July 24, 2022
Kayla Jimenez

Teachers, counselors and staffers at California’s School for the Deaf in Fremont are commuting for hours, living in their vehicles or doubling up with family or multiple roommates.

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

At night, he sleeps in his van.

One year ago, after working for more than a decade at the school, and living out of his van, Vezina saved 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 commutes and soaring gas prices, he lives and sleeps in his van during the week.

He is not alone. Many teachers at the school make long commutes, or double up with family or roommates because they cannot afford housing nearby — or are in the same position as Vezina.

“I’ve made a big sacrifice to live in my van because there’s no housing I can afford here,” signed Vezina, 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 children and the community, and that’s where I can use my skills to the fullest extent.”

The staffing situation has grown so dire that the school’s future is at risk. To combat problems with recruitment and retention of staff and teachers, organizers from the California Deaf Community, led by Ken Norton, 96, a former dean of students and alum of the school, are leading an effort to build teacher housing on a portion of vacant state-owned land where the campus is located.

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

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

The California Department of Education owns the land and operates the school. The department would have to approve the proposal for it to move forward.

Maria Clayton, a spokeswoman from the department, said they have received information about the request and are aware of the online petition, and the proposal is under review.

“We do recognize and continue to focus on ways to address teacher recruitment and retention,” Clayton said. “All this is will be considered as part of the review.”

The case illuminates how the local housing crisis is impacting schools across the Bay Area — and specialized schools in particular. Salaries often do not keep pace with the cost of living. The median sales price for a single family home in Fremont was about $1.7 million in June, according to real-estate brokerage company 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 with Bruce Dorfman (a co-founder of real estate development company Thompson & Dorfman Partners), and Joanna Julian at their office in Mill Valley,” Norton wrote. “We were enlightened explicitly on the need for a feasibility study. The study may cost between $50,000 and $100,000 for the project to build 40 units at the estimated cost of about $18 million.”

School Superintendent Clark Brooke, who is deaf, hasn’t officially supported a plan to build and provide teaching housing on the site, but he said it could be pursued as a long-term solution.

It could take years to develop a housing plan, obtain approval from the state and build the homes, he said. And any housing proposal would have to also consider the staff of the Diagnostic Center North and California School for the Blind which reside on the same state-owned land, he said.

In the short-term, Brooke said he has focused on increasing wages to preserve the quality of trained staff at the school. The bargaining process for higher pay is handled at the California Department of Education and involves a staff union representative and state officials.

“It is a complicated process but we have requested that there be recruitment and retention (bonuses) on top of our regular pay,” Brooke said in an email. He added that although salaries at the school are comparable, adding extra dollars to help with recruitment and retention of qualified teachers would help offset the high cost of living, but would not be factored into retirement calculations.

Meanwhile, current staffers struck by the Bay Area’s housing crisis are scrambling to find affordable housing and make ends meet. Many of them are hard of hearing and said they would have a difficult time obtaining jobs elsewhere. And they feel an attachment to the Deaf community at the school.

Brooke said the school has had an especially hard time recruiting teachers and staff because there aren’t local training programs to help obtain Deaf and hard of hearing education specialist credentials. To teach CDS students, educators need the specific state teaching credential and must be proficient in American Sign Language, according to a school job posting. A bargaining schedule from the department of education lists a salary for teachers between about $61,000 and $104,000 a year. For support staff and supervisors, the range is $35,000 to $45,000 a year, Brooke said.

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

Many of the students enrolled in the school have hearing parents, so living on campus with others who are hard of hearing provides a sense of community and belonging.

Vezina said that his role as cottage counselor makes that possible. But at a round table with teachers and staff in mid-July, he signed that there’s no way he could afford a home or even a one-bedroom apartment in the area, several of those around the table agreed.

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

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

Their stories continue to spark a fire in Norton, who is deaf, to aggressively find solutions to keep the state-wide school for hard of hearing kids alive.

“I think staying here with a housing solution on campus will answer the problems,” Norton said. “I don’t want to people to think the school’s solution is to move. To stay here in Fremont is the best place for the school and the students.”

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