Woodstock teachers win arbitration hearing over lab position

Seniors Peter Borden, 17, left, and Isaac Emery, 18, right, work on their design for an in-ground trampoline in the Innovation Lab at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Students in the IDEA class are currently working in small groups to create playground games and activities that they will design, model and build as part of a collaboration with a sister school in Turkey.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Seniors Peter Borden, 17, left, and Isaac Emery, 18, right, work on their design for an in-ground trampoline in the Innovation Lab at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Students in the IDEA class are currently working in small groups to create playground games and activities that they will design, model and build as part of a collaboration with a sister school in Turkey.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Peter Borden, right, looks up prices for components of an in-ground trampoline as Isaac Emery, left, takes notes during their IDEA class at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Peter Borden, right, looks up prices for components of an in-ground trampoline as Isaac Emery, left, takes notes during their IDEA class at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-24-2023 7:39 PM

WOODSTOCK — The future of a science and math lab at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School is uncertain after an arbitrator found earlier this month that the person running the lab must be a school employee, not a contractor.

Since 2017, the school district has contracted with NuVu, a private “innovation school” in Cambridge, Mass., which provides one of its fellows to lead the lab. Originally paid for by grants, the position is now part of the middle/high school’s budget. This year, it costs $160,000.

Last year, after the fellow at the time sought and failed to become a union member, the Windsor Central Education Association — now the Mountain Views Education Association — filed a grievance saying that the position was effectively a teaching position that should be included in the bargaining unit. It also sought to have teachers paid at the same rate as the fellow, which is higher than teachers’ pay.

In an Oct. 10 report, arbitrator Sarah Kerr Garraty determined that the school district had violated the union contract by subcontracting the position. To remedy the situation, the district must integrate the STEM lab position into the collective bargaining unit, Garraty determined.

“… (I)ntegrating the NuVu Fellow into the bargaining unit will require a process of determining appropriate certification and benefits,” Garraty wrote. “It will also likely require some adjustment of the District’s agreements with NuVu. These issues are best left to future consultation between the District and the Association …”

Garraty retains jurisdiction for 90 days following the date of her report in order to resolve any disagreements between the parties concerning the solution she recommends.

In an Oct. 12 emailed statement, the union said it was “pleased that the arbitrator agrees with our position and that this important teaching position will now be filled by an MVSU educator.”

Superintendent Sherry Sousa said she was “very disappointed” in the arbitrator’s decision. The relationship with NuVu has offered students the “opportunity to do real-world design problems,” she said. She noted that one student worked with NuVu to design a cook stove that uses corn pellets instead of wood, which he brought to a village in the southeastern African country of Malawi this past summer.

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The student, Parker Pierce, a 17-year-old junior from Woodstock, was in the lab on Friday morning during a phone interview. He said the cook stove project is still ongoing.

“We wanted feedback on it before we started mass producing,” Pierce said. “Now what we’re doing is using that feedback from the villages that we were in (and) making a better model.”

The feedback included suggestions such as adding handles and making it bigger. Last week, a NuVu contingent provided additional feedback. Pierce said he and his team are also working at improving the stove’s airflow.

“When I first started this project, I knew nothing about a stove or airflow,” Pierce said. “I didn’t know a lot about a stove and how small it could be and how compact. It’s amazing to make something I could bring to another country.”

Pierce also said he hopes to build on the skills he’s learning in the NuVu lab after high school.

“If I can build up a business with this stove with my partner, it would be very ideal,” he said.

Pierce has company in his enthusiasm for the lab. This year, 56 middle school students and 114 high school students are enrolled in Woodstock’s NuVu program. The school has a total of about 490 students.

During a Wednesday visit while students were taking the PSAT down the hall, the empty lab included three separate spaces, one equipped with tables on wheels, another with computers and a large screen for video conferencing and a third maker space equipped with a laser cutter and wood shop tools. Student projects were on display, including some toy-sized chairs made out of wood and another version made out of cardboard.

Jen Stainton, the school’s director of curriculum, said the space is part of what allows the students to engage in the design process, which includes several iterations, failures and clear documentation of each stage. Students also learn to use CAD (computer-aided design) programs, 3-D printers and the laser cutter. The video chats allow students to get feedback on their projects from other NuVu fellows, staff and participants, including from other NuVu programs around the world.

Stainton also described the way the fellows work with teachers to integrate design projects into other course work using an “innovative mindset.” In one case, a fellow worked with an English teacher to research controversial monuments that were being taken down and to design new ones that had modern cultural relevance.

Johnson is the fourth NuVu fellow to work at Woodstock. He is a Bay Area native who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University. He also studied astronomy and physics.

“I’m a big nerd who loves to make stuff,” he said in a Friday Zoom call. Johnson is in his third year as a NuVu fellow; he previously worked at The Elizabeth Morrow School, a private K-8 school in New Jersey.

While the fellows are required to have design experience and education, they are not required to have teaching experience or a teaching license. Saba Ghole, one of NuVu’s co-founders, said in the Friday Zoom call that the design skills the fellows have, through which they aim to impart problem solving skills to the students, was “not a skill set schools could hire for.”

In its statement, the union said it filed the grievance because it believes “students are best served by a licensed teacher who is committed to helping students achieve the skills outlined in our Portrait of a Graduate as well as being accountable to the (Mountain Views Supervisory Union) administration and not to a Massachusetts-based corporation.”

It also disputed the higher pay of the NuVu fellow and the outsourcing of teaching jobs in conflict with the union’s bargaining agreement with the district.

The initial one-year contract between the district and NuVu was $198,000, of which $125,000 went to the fellow for salary, benefits, training, some housing costs and relocation expenses. The remainder was for program development and management, a license for an online platform and visits with other NuVu instructors.

The NuVu fellows earn salaries of between $60,000 and $85,000 annually depending on their experience and cost of living costs in the area of their fellowship, according to Ghole. 

The average teacher salary in what is now the Mountain Views Supervisory Union in 2021 was a little more than $65,000 a year, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

Garraty did not support the union’s request that the district “make the teachers and the Association whole, including by increasing staff salaries to that of the NuVu instructor.” She said the higher pay of the fellows has not had a negative impact on the pay of union members.

The fellows sometimes work long hours, making themselves available to students during lunch and after school, Ghole said. They also attend training in Cambridge in the summer months.

The issue came to the attention of the union’s leadership last year when the then-NuVu fellow Sumanth Krishna sought to join the union, according to Garraty’s report. Principal Garon Smail informed Krishna that he was ineligible for union membership because he was not a district employee.

In arbitration, the district pointed out that the union had known about the NuVu lab prior to last school year. Former union president Keri Bristow said she talked with the then-Superintendent Mary Beth Banios about it but did not pursue a formal grievance, at least in part, because the union had other issues it was working through with the administration at the time.

“It’s a great program,” Bristow said in a phone interview. “We just said let it go. That was the end of it until the current union officers brought it forward.”

Bristow, a Woodstock resident who retired from teaching Spanish in Woodstock in 2019, is now chairwoman of the Mountain Views School District.

“I just regret that that’s the resolution that they seem to want,” Bristow said of the union. It’s “not really easy to get (new) teachers right now.”

Bristow, who with her partner runs the nonprofit that organized the trip that brought the stove designed in the NuVu lab to Malawi, said it’s “the students that lose on this deal.”

The district is in the second year of a three-year contract with NuVu. Given the arbitrator’s decision, it’s unclear whether the contract will be allowed to run its course.

Bristow said the district can hire a STEM teacher to replace the fellow, but the teacher will not have access to the resources that NuVu fellows have, including other NuVu coaches and mentoring the fellows undergo each summer.

Teachers also have benefited through partnering with the NuVu fellows.

Bristow herself worked with one fellow on a mapping project, which she said she wouldn’t have done on her own.

“It’s been one of the things that when the school system is promoted it’s one of the things that is mentioned,” Bristow said. “It was well embraced by the school.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CLARIFICATION: The NuVu fellows, including the one who runs a STEM lab at the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, earn salaries of between $60,000 and $85,000 annually depending on their experience and cost of living costs in the area of their fellowship, according to one of the company’s co-founders. The $125,000 allocated for the fellow in NuVu’s first contract with the Windsor Central Supervisory Union included the then-fellow’s salary, benefits, training, some housing costs and relocation expenses. A previous version of this story included incomplete information about the fellow’s salary.