If you looked at the agenda for Tuesday’s Newberg school board meeting, you’d have no idea the board was planning to fire Superintendent Joe Morelock.
It wasn’t until the meeting started, more than a half hour past the original 7 p.m. start time, that board chair Dave Brown added an agenda item to “discuss the superintendent”.
Prior to the public meeting, the board met in executive session, away from the public. On that agenda: consulting with lawyers and discussing employee dismissals or disciplinary matters.
At the start of the public meeting, the board’s conservative 4-3 majority voted to add the superintendent discussion, seemingly based on what the board had talked about when they were behind closed doors.
Some board members seemed confused about what executive session business would become public. But Brown added two new items, including one about Morelock.
“Under new business, we are discussing the superintendent,” said board chair Dave Brown.
The school board’s vote to terminate their superintendent Tuesday night comes after months of local and national attention on their effort to ban what proponents deemed “political” symbols, as well as several racist incidents involving staff and students. Newberg’s board isn’t the first in Oregon to terminate its superintendent this year. Superintendents for Greater Albany Public Schools, Adrian School District School, and Woodburn have all been removed this year, for varying reasons.
In Newberg, four of the seven board members voted to fire Morelock, who was under contract through June 2024. Those in favor did not explain their decision. Two of those board members were elected this past May.
The superintendent’s cabinet of administrators issued a statement after the sudden vote saying it was “shocked and dismayed.” The group cited what they considered positive examples of Morelock’s leadership, including his work turning the district’s finances around, creating a safety net of over $9 million. The Newberg teachers’ union said the firing was another example of a board majority “bringing instability” to the district’s schools.
During the meeting, staff members visibly shook their heads and teared up.
Newberg’s recent controversies
State and local leaders across Oregon have spoken out against the actions of the board majority over the last few months. Responding to Morelock’s termination, Oregon House Democrats said they’ll “take action” on Newberg in the next legislative session. In a statement shared Thursday, the Oregon legislature’s Black, Indigenous, People of Color Caucus said the board’s decisions threaten Newberg’s “economic vitality.” The group also said it will take action in the next legislative session.
“This means ensuring school boards are held accountable; that there is access to training around educational equity and governance that is action-oriented for leaders; securing students a say and a voice at the policy-making table; and making sure superintendents’ jobs are protected when they are simply following the law,” according to the statement.
The school board and district are already the target of a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the Newberg Education Association.
Also Tuesday night, the board discussed its first complaint under the new “political” symbols ban, a rainbow sign in an elementary school window that said “Be Known,” a slogan used by George Fox University. A resident of Dundee submitted the complaint Sept. 30, saying the sign amounted to a “gay pride” poster and should be removed immediately.
Both the school principal and Morelock dismissed the complaint, saying the sign and its message are not “political, quasi-political, or controversial”.
Brown, the board chair, seemed unaware of the details of the complaint, despite its inclusion in the board packet.
Board members Brandy Penner and Rebecca Piros, both in the board’s three-member minority, said the sign was not political, especially coming from George Fox, a private Christian university in Newberg.
Board vice chair Brian Shannon, who created the initial wording of the political symbols ban, called it the “grayest of gray areas”.
“My daughter wears rainbow pajamas all the time,” Shannon said. “This is a tough one, I’m not going to lie.”
The board decided to table the decision to uphold or reject the district’s response to the complaint, voting along the same 4-3 line as with most other decisions they made Tuesday.
The board also voted Tuesday on whether to retain lawyer Tyler Smith, an outside attorney they initially hired at the end of August. The conditions of his hiring are the basis of a lawsuit against the school board, according to the Newberg Graphic.
Piros said she had to file public records requests just to access all of the information Smith was sharing with other board members in the conservative majority. But the board voted, again 4 to 3, to keep paying the attorney.
The discussion of the superintendent began after 10 p.m., over the objections of those in the minority.
Piros asked her colleagues to take more time before going forward with the major, unannounced decision.
“I move that we table this and adjourn the meeting, I feel it’s too important to push this through,” she said.
“No,” Brown replied. “We’re going to move forward.”
Shannon and Smith, the lawyer, both interjected to remind Brown that he could not deny the motion to wait, but then the motion failed anyway.
“There has been insufficient public comments, input, notification, and it is 10:30 at night on a school night,” Penner said.
With that, the board turned to their actual conversation about Morelock.
Smith, the lawyer, continued his involvement in the board meeting, directing Brown of the language to use in moving to terminate Morelock’s employment. He referred to a packet given to board members in executive session, but not shared publicly, that had to do with Morelock.
Board members said they did not receive the documents until the executive session that evening. Penner pointed out the juxtaposition in the board majority pushing to make a decision on Morelock while putting off a decision on the rainbow sign.
“We tabled a motion on if we’re going to figure out if a rainbow sign is political or not, because people didn’t have enough time to review the packet that they had for four or five days,” Penner said. “And the packet that we just received a couple of hours ago, while we were in a meeting, is certainly not sufficient time for me to review it and understand it.”
The board discussion and vote to remove Morelock was tense. The split between the board’s majority and minority was clear, with members in the majority remaining quiet, and minority members repeatedly objecting to the speed of the conversation and pointing out the cost, financial and otherwise, of losing Morelock. Piros seemed to allude to Morelock’s lack of enforcement of the political symbols ban as a possible cause for his “no-cause” termination. The ban is complaint-based.
“... He didn’t rush to do something he felt was illegal; he was protecting the school district from our rashness, and that is what a CEO does, he sees the big, big picture,” Piros said.
After the vote to remove Morelock, Penner and Piros spoke emotionally about his impact on the district, and the board majority’s lack of reasoning given for firing Morelock.
The board voted to adjourn the meeting, but not before Piros addressed Morelock.
“We wish you well, we’re so sorry,” she said. “And I’m just very disappointed in this decision.”
“Thanks Rebecca,” Morelock told her. “Just remember that from the darkest dark, comes the brightest light. So everything will work out eventually.”
What’s next for Newberg
The district will likely need an interim superintendent as the school year continues. Morelock’s employment ends in 10 days, and the next school board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 23. The district will have to pay Morelock’s salary and benefits for the next 12 months, according to a reading of Morelock’s contract during the meeting.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat whose district includes Newberg, weighed in with an emailed statement from the U.N. Climate Conference in Glasgow, connecting Newberg with trouble and conflict facing school boards across the country.
“Removing Superintendent Morelock from his post is part of a troubling national trend of extremist school boards ousting experienced, valuable school leaders, which is detrimental to the students they are supposed to serve,” Bonamici wrote. “Unfortunately, a few school board members are forcing through these inappropriate, and possibly illegal, changes, which will have long-lasting consequences and threaten student safety. I continue to stand with parents, students of color, LGBTQ students, and all members of the community who have courageously continued to speak out against the school board’s unacceptable actions.”
The dissenting board members said the move to fire Morelock, coupled with litigation over the controversial political symbols ban, could have a grave financial impact on the district.
Penner said the decision will set the district back several years.
“We will be losing a leader who has pulled us out of financial ruin, who has rebuilt community, who has rebuilt relationships,” she said. “In the matter of three months, four people have completely destroyed that.”