The Newberg School Board voted 4-3 to fire Superintendent Joe Morelock late Tuesday night. Morelock’s contract was not set to expire until 2024 and those who voted in favor of his termination did not give a reason for the firing. In September, the same four board members also voted in favor of a ban on political symbols including Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride flags. We hear from Morelock as he reflects on his firing and the future of the Newberg School District.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Another Oregon superintendent is out of a job. In August, the Albany School Board terminated its sole employee without cause. The Adrian School Board in Eastern Oregon followed, and this week the Newberg School Board voted to fire its superintendent Joe Morelock. The Newberg termination was without cause, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Newberg became a national story after the school board instituted a ban on the display of so-called political symbols like Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags. There have also been some highly publicized racist incidents involving staff and students in recent months. The board has been at odds with Morelock, who has questioned the legality and the clarity of the ban. Joe Morelock joins us now to give his first interview about all of this. Joe Morelock, welcome to TOL.
Joe Morelock: Thanks Dave, happy to be here.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. So the board, as I noted, has said this is a no cause firing. Why do you think you were fired?
Morelock: Well I don’t really want to speculate, but I think if you look at the hours of video that’s available on Youtube, you can probably get a feeling for that. I think that [as] we have kind of navigated all of the things that have come up in the last little while, you know that we have different philosophies about how to move forward. So I think for them, that was probably their only option, as our philosophies diverged pretty widely.
Miller: People obviously can watch hours of publicly available school board meetings, but for people who haven’t, can you – and I appreciate you don’t want to spend too much time trying to read the minds of the school board members – but what do you see as the heart of the philosophical differences?
Morelock: Well as you know, the thing that was probably most well publicized of course, was the policy decision to attempt to ban political, quasi-political or controversial items. The challenge and all of that really is that the policy is so broad and the enforcement is kind of an automatic mechanism to incur discrimination. We were obviously concerned about that and I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that I was protecting the district from a legal standpoint, and of course our employees and our students on the sociological part of it. So I think there was a pretty significant difference [in] what that policy meant. You know, we did enforce it based upon the actual writing of the policy, and it’s probably frustrating for some people, because they felt like things should move more quickly. And we were managing and enforcing it as written. So I think that that was probably a pretty significant challenge for them.
Miller: Can you remind us what the ban actually says? There was so much talk about it for months, and eventually in a 4-3 vote, as many of the votes in the last couple months have been, it was passed. So what were you given by the board?
Morelock: So I’m sorry, I don’t have the policy directly in front of me, but it started out of course, and the noise made was [that] the original version of the policy was to ban simply symbols, clothing, other displays of either Black Lives Matter or Pride flags, whatever that meant. So obviously that, in and of itself, as a policy, had some significant legal challenges to it already, just in terms of when you read it. So the next version of the policy came and it was far more broad and it talked about just symbols that are either political, quasi-political or controversial, including anything that students might have more than one viewpoint on which essentially says everything, because nobody agrees on anything anywhere. As part of that, the policy requires that if people wish to complain, they follow the district’s complaint procedure, which is the same for any other kind of complaint against something that people don’t like in school. That’s something that every district has. It’s a process that takes some time. So the policy came as a very kind of a broad stroke. And again, as I said before, the challenge was not necessarily in the policy language, except for the fact that when you try to enforce it, you find yourself running into First Amendment rights, and other kinds of discriminatory practices. So that would be very hard for us to have an equal way to enforce it at the end.
Miller: Am I right that there was only one complaint that was brought, that ended up in the process?
Morelock: That’s correct. So currently there’s only one that has made it all the way to the board. There were a couple of others that had begun, some stopped, some continued on. So we had our just our first one actually on November 9th meeting.
Miller: The same meeting where they voted to terminate you.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what the sign was, the only one that had made it as far as the board?
Morelock: So, it was a rainbow background, and then kind of a translucent white heart on top of it. And then it said the words “Be known”, and it was in a window facing the street at the school.
Miller: I’ve read that this is actually from George Fox University, is that right?
Morelock: Well, I know the Be Known phrase is the one they’ve used in their marketing. I don’t know specifically if this came from George Fox or not. I just happen to know that that is their phrase, it’s their marketing term they’ve used before.
Miller: I’m lingering on this because we finally have a kind of test case, instead of more vague conversations about what this would be like. And the test case itself shows the challenge here, and the vagueness. Because if I’m not mistaken, part of the debate about this, became a question of what is a rainbow itself, is it always political? So how did you approach the political nature or lack of it, in this sign?
Morelock: Well, I think that that really is the challenge in the enforcement of this policy. Regardless of what you see as a symbol, people have a different experience of that symbol, whatever it could be. Right? And so I think that when you look at the breadth of this and I think you can, if you happen to watch that segment and the board meeting,
you’ll see folks struggling with, is this political or is it not? Are all rainbows political or are they not? Is this saying political, or is it not? And you know, there’s, it’s like playing a large game of whack-a-mole. So you’ve got that one. So somebody puts up something else which might be different. We’re still bound by the Hatch Act of 1939, which talks about partisan politics or things that federal and state employees can’t be promoting, right? So you can’t have a current political candidate or what have you. So I think that, again, the enforcement of this is going to be exceptionally challenging, because you have to make some determinations and essentially, at the board level, because everybody sees them differently. And I think that that’s going to be a really difficult thing for them to move forward with.
Miller: Oregon House Democrats referred to the termination of your contract a couple years before it was going to expire, as quote-unquote “censoring” you: censoring you because you don’t agree with the majority of the board members, and they vowed to take action. This is House Democrats in the next legislative session. Can you imagine what kind of legislative action could actually be useful to address this sort of situation? As I noted, a superintendent is the sole employee of the board, and boards in Oregon and around the country have a lot of power in terms of whether or not the superintendent is going to work for a district. Do you see the need for a political intervention to prevent something like what just happened to you?
Morelock: Well, we have to remember that – and I don’t remember how many years ago – but it has been several years ago that the kind of election cycle changed. And so now you have several more seats on board terms that are up all at once. So the pendulum can swing from left to right to back to left back to right, right? So it’s the challenge we have right now is that if you’re replacing one board member or maybe two in an election cycle, then you have some stability among a board. Because you have to learn how a board operates, and not everybody knows how to work on a board, and the fact that they’re in a legislative role and not in an operational role. That’s why you hire a superintendent or a CEO, and she or he is in charge of running that district or whatever that industry is. So from a legislative perspective, I think maybe I’d like to see that we don’t have such large numbers of boards changing hands, because what that does is it creates instability for the system, right? It creates instability for your staff. Whether or not your staff like you, is kind of irrelevant, but at least they know who their leader is for more than [audio cuts out] … and they understand the average is between two and three years because that’s about the average of the swing of a school board. The old phrase is that the school board who hires you is not the school board who fires you. And it’s because we’re having these large swings. So if nothing else, looking at what local elections or election cycles do to school boards, city councils, things of that nature.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Joe Morelock. He is in his last week as a superintendent of the Newberg School District, the school board terminated his contract on Tuesday. It’s tempting, and you’re talking there about how many seats on the border are up at one time and one could look at what happened on Tuesday as the act of four people, the new conservative majority on the board, but that seems shortsighted. I mean, they were elected by the community and they represent a real chunk of the community. Do you see a way to bridge what really does seem to be a huge divide, without caving on your bedrock principles of equity and inclusion or public health or following state rules. I bring those up because in Adrian [Oregon] for example, it seemed that the question was about a mask mandate that came from the state. How do you bridge these kinds of divides that are not just about a 4-3 vote, but that really do exist in the community as a whole?
Morelock: Well, that’s an excellent question, Dave, and if I had that figured out, I probably also solve world hunger next week. So I’ll work on that. But honestly, the challenge here is that when you make people follow the law and follow policy, and it’s not what they want, it becomes very difficult. So people sometimes want what they want, and this current majority has something that they have heard from their segment of the community and that community exists. And I think that’s fair. I think the hardest part for school leaders or leaders of any kind of governmental organization is that you need to welcome all people in the door, and how do you navigate between those? How do you get through the polarization, and try to bring people together and land on some things that everybody can agree on? So we need to be able to agree that each child is welcome and they have to feel supported. And it may look different for every child for every staff member. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have, because sometimes people just want things to happen, or happen quickly. And they forget that sometimes they show up with a lot of misinformation, and I’m just trying to help them understand what really goes on in the school, and it’s not a huge conspiracy theory and people are just working really hard every day to educate their children. So I think the difficulty in that is that you have to get people to understand they need to follow the law, they need to follow the mandate, they need to follow policy, and then try to do as well as they can. But that conversation has been very difficult, because not everybody wants to follow the law, because they don’t like the law.
Miller: I’m curious for your take on what you think the four person majority on the school board, but more importantly, the people who voted them into office: your take on what they want. I think I understand what you want when you’re talking about equity and inclusion and making sure that everybody feels welcome in the school building. What do you think the conservative members of your community want right now?
Morelock: Well, I think a lot of it comes from a fear of loss. We think about the traditions of American public education for decades and decades. We have been slowly improving our systems to help kids who have different needs grow in the way they need to grow. And I think sometimes it feels like there’s a loss, because you’re not doing the way we always used to do it. You know, we always sat in rows facing the same direction, doing the same task at the same time. And as we have moved away from that to try to reach more learners, it feels like “I don’t understand what school looks like anymore”. “I was an expert, I went to school for 13 years, but afterwards, now I think schools should look like that for everyone”. I think what gets lost in the polarization is that people just want it to be exactly they wanted for their child, and when you have to explain that we need to make it welcoming, and we need to make it inspiring, we need to make it educational for every child, and every child looks a little bit different. It’s something that not everybody wants to believe, and I think that honestly, I think that people who are on the conservative side are the same as the people who are on the progressive side. They all want what they believe is best for their child, and I think that that’s very true. I think it’s the belief of what that looks like is very different, between those two polarized sides of the debate.
Miller: What are your best hopes for the future of the Newberg school district right now?
Morelock: I hope that they are able to, in this next process when they look for a new leader, I hope they’re able to find someone who can continue to support students, continue to support staff, who is involved in the community. There are a lot of really wonderful people here. We have this incredible staff doing amazing work every day, and I think that gets lost in a lot of the noise. I spent every month going to every school and checking in and getting to see the magic happening, and I’m just hopeful that they’ll be able to find someone who will come in, and bring people together, and lead them forward, because this community deserves it. They’ve gone through a lot of hurt. We’ve had a very, very hard fall. We’re all coming out of a global pandemic together. We’re all dealing with mask mandates and all kinds of things. And I’m just hopeful that they’re able to find somebody who will care deeply and to lead this staff work, because this community deserves the very best.
Miller: In September, after a white staff member came to school in black face, you put out a statement, you ended it by saying this: “When harmful actions like this come to the surface and the traumatic impacts of those actions are recognized, we all – children and adults – can work toward improving the environment and the supports we employ for each and every student, no matter their identity, I am absolutely committed to doing that work. Let’s do it together.” Do you think that work will continue in your absence?
Morelock: I absolutely do. We have a lot of very committed staff. That statement really was echoing what I hear from people all the time as they want to make every child feel safe and welcome. And it’s hard. It’s hard work.
Miller: Let me put it to you this way, sorry to interrupt. Do you think that a school board that would fire you would put in place a replacement who would feel the same way as you do about that work?
Morelock: Well, I won’t speculate on who they might choose, but you also have to remember that you have very large, wide-ranging staff and there are a lot of systems in place to support students. We’ve been working on this for a long time, well before me. I think it will probably continue well after me.
Miller: You have five school days left as superintendent. What do you plan to do in that time?
Morelock: Well, as I mentioned before, I have spent all of my time here visiting schools in the past. So I’ve spent about 90 minutes in schools going to classrooms, seeing kids. So I plan on getting to all 10 of our schools, to say hello, maybe say goodbye, give some closure for some people and still get to see the magic. Because that’s really where the joy in this job is, to see all of the stuff that’s happening in our schools and to be a part of that. So I will endeavor to get to every school next week and just check in one last time.
Miller: Sometimes presidents leave letters for the people that follow them in office with advice. What would you tell your successor?
Morelock: I would tell them to trust the people they have around them. Listen to your community, ALL sides of your community. Listen to your students, listen to your staff. There is a lot of hurt right now, but there’s also a lot of hope. So spending a good amount of time listening and trusting the people you have around you to do, and the great work you have ahead of you.
Miller: Joe Morelock, thanks very much.
Morelock: Thank you.
Miller: Joe Morelock is the outgoing superintendent of the Newberg School District.
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