Teachers and support staff at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, a 195-year-old institution in Germantown, want to unionize.
The staff has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a collective bargaining unit at the school, it announced Monday. The move comes after the 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," said veteran teacher Penny Starr-Ashton. "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 or hard of hearing, or use assistive technology - have deteriorated over the last several years, staffers said.
There have been dramatic changes in hiring and firing practices, and the good working relationship that staff and administrators had for years is gone, said Mark Drolsbaugh, a counselor at the school for 20 years.
Drolsbaugh said a "climate of fear" led to the union drive.
"People with limited or no background in deaf education have been hired over those with a more considerable background," said Drolsbaugh, a respected author on deaf issues. "Longtime staff members have been unceremoniously pushed out, demoted, or discouraged to the point where they decided to leave PSD."
In a statement issued Monday night, Marja Brandon, head of school, said: "The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf respects our employees' legally protected right to a free and fair, secret ballot election to choose whether or not to be represented by a union in their dealings with the school. The AFT has requested that the National Labor Relations Board conduct such an election among our employees. Given that this matter is now pending before the NLRB, we cannot comment further."
Starr-Ashton, a reading specialist and library-information teacher who began teaching at the school in 1987, said the climate hurts students at PSD, at School House Lane and Greene Street.
"It's directly affected the kids," Starr-Ashton said. "We can't say what they need."
Salary and benefits are not a focus of the union push, staffers said.
School officials have fought back against the union drive, teachers said. Administrators have sent letters to staff warning them against a union, and the board has declined to speak directly to staff about their concerns, Drolsbaugh said.
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, in a statement sent by the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania.
Officials would not disclose the exact level of support for a union, but they said it was well over the 30 percent of staff level needed to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.
The board will work with the AFT and school attorneys to determine which employees would be eligible for a potential bargaining unit. An election would follow within a month.
PSD teachers were unionized for a time, but not since the 1980s.