School Board says Newton School art teacher could not be retained due to licensure issues

Aurora Berger, of Strafford, Vt., during an interview in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 11, 2019. (The Herald - Tim Calabro)

Aurora Berger, of Strafford, Vt., during an interview in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 11, 2019. (The Herald - Tim Calabro) The Herald, file — Tim Calabro

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-18-2023 9:59 PM

SOUTH STRAFFORD — Community members have come out in support of a former art teacher who lost her job at The Newton School, but school administrators, who have been criticized for a lack of transparency in the matter, say she cannot be reinstated because of licensing issues.

Strafford parents and other Newton faculty members have expressed frustration that neither the Strafford School Board nor the administration acknowledged last spring the departure of Aurora Berger, who taught part time when she was placed on administrative leave 2½ weeks before the end of the school year.

It wasn’t until report cards were issued without art grades for the final term that some parents even realized Berger was put on leave. Others said they noticed when she didn’t attend the K-8 school’s graduation ceremony.

This summer, Berger’s supporters connected through Facebook, the Strafford Listserv and in-person meetings, which eventually led to the creation of a online petition urging the School Board to reinstate her. Posted to iPetitions, it had nearly 600 signatures on Thursday, which is roughly equivalent to half the town’s population.

“It was eye-opening to me to hear from these different parents what Aurora meant,” Sonya Schumacher, a Strafford parent, said in a phone interview this week.

At a July gathering held at one family’s home, Schumacher said she was “almost in tears just hearing how some of these kids feel that her art room is a safe space for them to be.”

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Support for Berger also is evident in dozens of comments posted to the online petition and Strafford Listserv.

But the Strafford School Board told community members this week that it could not rehire Berger, even as it acknowledged she was a valued member of the school community. Continuing to employ her would have violated state law and the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, the board said.

Following a nearly three-hour executive session held during a special meeting on Tuesday evening, the School Board issued a statement describing the circumstances that led to Berger’s departure.

One issue was Berger’s failure to meet the district’s deadlines for obtaining a teacher’s license.

The other issue involved an administrative leave she was required to take at the end of the school year. Citing personnel reasons, the board declined to detail the nature of the investigation that led to the leave.

Reached by email, Berger declined to comment. A voice message left for her attorney, Barbara Lelli of the Burlington-based Vermont Employee Rights Group, was not returned by deadline.

According to the board’s statement, Berger, who worked at the school under a provisional license for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, had a June 1 deadline given to her by White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney. That deadline included a one-month extension she had requested.

Without a license, her contract became null and void. She was “not fired or terminated from her position,” the board’s statement said.

“In fact, we encourage Aurora to complete licensing, as she is clearly a beloved member of the community and a gifted educator,” the statement said. “To quote a community member, we agree that she is someone who made art important and meaningful to children’s educational experience. She is welcome to apply to any open position for which she is qualified.”

Teachers working under a provisional license have two years to obtain their own license. They can apply to the state Agency of Education for a third year but must demonstrate hardship.

“Individuals who fail to obtain a regular license within the deadlines may not teach in Vermont public schools,” the board’s statement said.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the Newton School and the White River Valley Education Association, teachers are required to demonstrate to the superintendent by March 1 that they either hold a license for the coming school year or are on schedule to be licensed by Aug. 1. If they are still working toward licensure, teachers are supposed to demonstrate to the superintendent by May 1 that they are licensed.

Kinnarney had given Berger the extension to June 1 and the school had given her extra professional development days to work toward licensure.

The petition, first posted on iPetitions earlier this month, alleges that Berger was dismissed after an anonymous parent complained to the board of The Mountain School, where Berger also taught, of the presence of nude images in her online portfolio.

Alex Myers, The Mountain School’s director, in a Tuesday email declined to comment beyond confirming that Berger had been employed there as an art teacher for the 2022-23 school year.

Sarah Root, the Strafford board chair, didn’t speak directly to Strafford’s investigation of Berger at Tuesday’s meeting but explained that the school needs to err on the side of protecting children. So when an allegation is made, the policy is to put the employee on leave with full pay and benefits to allow an investigation to take place.

“We have to do that,” Root said. “If it had been horrible pornography, which it was not, if it had been, we need to protect our kids. That’s the reality.”

Board members also told the community on Tuesday that the complaint against Berger had come through the Agency of Education, not from anyone in Strafford.

Matt Gingo read the text of the petition into the minutes of the Strafford School Board’s Aug. 7 meeting.

“Aurora is an extraordinary teacher as well as an extraordinary artist,” Gingo read, noting that her work has been displayed at the United Nations in New York and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She’s also won awards such as the Wynne Newhouse Award and VSA Emerging Young Artists Award by the Kennedy Center.

“More importantly, she has changed perspectives and opened hearts and minds of many students at Newton who have found in Aurora’s art class a window into shared humanity and a balm for the wounds, whether large and small, in their own lives,” the petition states. “For many students, Aurora was the first teacher to make art meaningful to them.”

Berger, a graduate of The Newton School, holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate University, as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a bachelor’s in art education from Prescott College, according to her website.

She identifies as a queer disabled artist, writer and educator.

“Working within the frameworks of capacity and disability, I use photographs to examine and reclaim my own identity,” her website says. “As a physically and visually disabled artist, my work is a reflection of how I see the world.”

In an Aug. 4 letter to Kinnarney, which was subsequently shared with parents involved in advocating for Berger’s reinstatement, a dozen employees of The Newton School expressed the effect that Berger’s departure had on them.

“Not only were we down a staff member, but students and staff were concerned for her well-being and given no opportunity to ensure that she was safe and well,” the employees wrote. “In addition to being our art teacher, Aurora is a former Newton student and Strafford community member; she belongs at Newton, and we were given no reason why she was not there. Teachers and staff deserved better from the (Supervisory Union) administration.”

The school, which includes some 100 students in grades K-8, has offered a full-time position teaching both art and music to someone other than Berger, board members said at the Tuesday meeting, which was held both in person and via Google Meet.

Requirements for the part-time art teacher job as posted on SchoolSpring.com include being licensed or eligible for a Vermont educator license, having an endorsement in secondary art education or being eligible for a provisionary license.

A search for Berger’s name in the online database of Vermont licensed educators found no matching entries.

During public comments after the board issued its statement on Tuesday, parents and students sought more information about the timing of the two separate issues, the investigation that required Berger’s leave and her lack of a license.

Parent Matt Christie said it “strains credulity” that these two issues were unrelated. “They’re unrelated, sure, but it feels a lot like a pretext.”

Christie noted that his thinking was partly informed by the lack of information about Berger’s departure provided to families between June and Tuesday evening. It’s “difficult for us not to connect those two dots,” he said.

Community member Beverly Bilsky spoke to the sadness families are feeling in the wake of Berger’s exit. She acknowledged that the board in its statement apologized for a lack of communication to the community, but she also urged it to do better by coming up with a plan for how it would improve.

It’s “much better to be truthful and honest from the get-go,” she said.

Schumacher, in a Thursday email, said parents met with Berger on Wednesday and found “discrepancies” in the School Board’s timeline. They also feel that administrators should have been more supportive in helping Berger get a third year on the provisional license.

In a Wednesday interview, Root said she was puzzled how community members would think that she and other members of the board and administration “would set out to do something horrible to a person.”

“That we would go after someone because she’s disabled and LGBTQ because we didn’t want them in our school is absurd,” Root said. “I’m not saying we didn’t make mistakes, (but) if you think that was our agenda, we’ve got far bigger problems.”

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