Teachers and support staff at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, a 195-year-old school in Germantown, want to unionize.

The staff have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a collective bargaining unit at the school, they announced on Mondaydec 1. The move comes after the state-run school's board refused to voluntarily recognize the union.

And it comes amid a growing rift between school staff and administration.

"We've lost our voice - we've lost the ability to speak up for our children," veteran teacher Penny Starr-Ashton said. "We haven't found another way other than this union to bring about change to the school."

Conditions at PSD - a private school that receives state funding to educate students who are deaf, hard of hearing or use assistive technology — have deteriorated over the last several years, staffers said.

Dramatic changes in hiring and firing practices have occurred in recent years, they said.

Staff and administration had a good working relationship for years, said Mark Drolsbaugh, a counselor at the school for 20 years who decried the "climate of fear" that led to the unionization drive.

"People with limited or no background in deaf education have been hired over those with a more considerable background," Drolsbaugh said. "Longtime staff members have been unceremoniously pushed out, demoted, or discouraged to the point where they decided to leave PSD."

Starr-Ashton, a reading specialist and library information teacher who began teaching at the school in 1987, said the climate impacts students.

"It's directly affected the kids," Starr-Ashton said. "We can't say what they need."

The teachers say that several parents have reached out to support the teachers' attempt to form a union.

"I value the expertise and professionalism I have experienced with the teachers and support staff of PSD, and I want them to be able to advocate for my grandchild in an environment that is collaborative and free of oppression and reprisal," said Patricia Pomroy, grandparent of a PSD student, said in a statement sent by the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania.

PSD teachers were unionized for a time, but the school has not had a union since the 1980s.