A group of Newberg School District parents are taking the district and individual school board members to court.
A trial is underway Tuesday in Yamhill County Circuit Court that could result in current and former school board members paying out financially for what parents allege were violations of Oregon’s public meeting laws that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance pay and legal fees.
The parents allege four school board members “secretly met in quorum” twice in 2021 to discuss the hiring of a controversial attorney, Tyler Smith, and the firing of Newberg School District Superintendent Joe Morelock. The parents say the school district failed to properly notify the public about one of the meetings, as well as an executive session.
Newberg has been divided since a conservative majority of school board members passed a policy in 2021 that prohibited district staff from displaying “controversial, political, or quasi-political” symbols. The policy was initially aimed at preventing employees from displaying Black Lives Matter and pride flags in classrooms and on district property. That policy was the subject of a different lawsuit from the ACLU and a former Newberg staff member. Yamhill County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Easterday ruled the policy unconstitutional and the board’s controversial directive was scrapped. Easterday is also presiding over this week’s three-day trial alleging public meetings violations.
The board’s decisions drew attention across the state and nationally, and were seen as a warning to some of the growing politicization of school boards.
In October 2021, seven parents sued the school district and board members Trevor DeHart, Renee Powell, then-chair Dave Brown and then-vice-chair Brian Shannon for as the parents allege, violating public meeting laws.
On at least seven different days between July 27, 2021 and Aug. 16, 2021, “Brown participated in a series of phone calls to and from defendants Powell, DeHart, and Shannon,” Melissa Hopkins, one of the attorneys representing the parents, stated in court documents.
Attorneys representing the group of parents say in court documents that the board members “intentionally or deliberately voted to terminate Superintendent Morelock; with knowledge that their actions violated Oregon public meetings law; and, that their actions actually conferred a financial benefit to Superintendent Morelock.”
The board fired Morelock in November 2021. According to court records, the district paid him $274,947, the balance of his salary and benefits as part of his contract.
The lawsuit also alleges the board hired Smith under the same set of circumstances. Smith helped orchestrate the controversial symbols policy, which the board passed in September 2021. According to court documents, Smith has billed the district $42,845 for his legal services.
If Easterday finds the board members and district willfully violated public meetings laws, state law allows the members to be “jointly and severally liable” to the public body, meaning the board members could be ordered to repay the district, Hopkins argued in court filings.
This week’s civil trial is the latest effort by Newberg parents to exact accountability for the former school board members who divided the community through their politics. Earlier this year, Newberg voters elected a slate of five new school board members, defeating three incumbents and ending the school board’s conservative-leaning majority. Brown was defeated and Shannon did not run for re-election.
For their part, the school district and individual board members argue they did not violate Oregon’s public meetings laws.
“It is not and should not be a battle of political views or ideological stances,” Chelsea Pyasetskyy, attorney for the current and former board members, stated in court filings. “Although Plaintiffs will likely paint a picture of collusion and violations, the evidence tells a different story.”
Pyasetskyy stated that just because the four board members communicated with one another doesn’t mean they met in violation of the law. She states there is “no evidence” to support the parent’s claim “other than engaging in speculation.”
Attorneys for the school district acknowledged that a portion of an Aug. 24, 2021 meeting where they hired Smith, prior to going into executive session, did not get recorded.
“Luckily, the Board secretary eventually realized that the meeting should be recorded and began recording the meeting in time to capture most of the deliberations,” said the attorneys for the district state.
The bench trial runs through Thursday. Judge Easterday will decide the case and any penalties instead of a jury.