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Joe Morelock is relieved of his duties under a 'no cause' clause in his contact; no reason for the firing was given

COURTESY PHOTO: NEWBERG SCHOOL DISTRICT - The Newberg school board voted 4-3 on Tuesday evening to terminate the contract of Superintendent Joe Morelock.

"I just feel that this has been on your agenda since Day 1, that the two new board members were voted (in to accomplish this) and we're going to lose so much from this action. I'm just very, very, very saddened of your unwillingness to work together … and be an example of bridge building." — Newberg school board member Rebecca Piros

After a marathon executive session and brief public deliberation, the Newberg school board terminated the contract of Superintendent Joe Morelock on Tuesday evening. The contract was due to lapse in June 2024.

The four-person conservative majority on the board — chairman Dave Brown, vice-chairman Brian Shannon and directors Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart — turned a deaf ear to the objections of the remainder of the board: senior director Rebecca Piros, Brandy Penner and Inez Pena.Morelock

"We are losing a leader who has pulled us out of financial ruin, who has rebuilt community, who has rebuilt relationships," Penner said. "In a matter of three months, four people have completely destroyed that. And I am certain that this will have rippling effects for months and years to come and I doubt all four of you will even be here when the rebuilding (begins)."

None of the four — Brown, DeHart, Powell nor Shannon — explained in open session their reasons for firing Morelock, a fact that didn't sit well with a clearly agitated Piros.

"I protest that none of you had anything to say (about) why you wanted to do this," she said before being cut off by Brown and Shannon, arguing that the vote had been taken and the matter settled.

"You know exactly why, Rebecca, because they're cowards and they know they're going to get sued," Penner countered.

The Graphic sought comment from the four conservative members on their justification for the firing, but none of them has provided answers.

Brown did say during open session that the emphasis of the majority board members is on students in the district.

"The truth is that we think that every kid is super important," he said, adding that an unspecified event 18 months ago triggered the action that took place Tuesday. "We need to get back to just school. … The adults in this town have hurt our kids. Our district has got to the point where people can't wait to throw people under the bus."

In past meetings, Brown and some members of the community have accused Morelock of not enforcing the district's ban on political symbols in the schools. However, when the board adopted that directive, it also added a multi-tier process that began when somebody (a parent or teacher, for example) lodged a complaint with the district about a political symbol. Few of those complaints have reached the level of the superintendent. On Tuesday the board tabled discussion of a particular complaint about a political sign at Dundee Elementary School. The complainant insisted that Morelock hadn't taken action to remove the sign.

"Because he didn't do something he felt to be 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. "And I don't think the other school board members can see the big, big picture."

The legality of removing political signs in schools has yet to be determined and likely will be decided in the courts as part of the numerous lawsuits brought against the board and the district in the past several months.

Strained relations

On several occasions the minority made motions to adjourn the meeting before the vote was taken to terminate Morelock's contract. Piros tried once, but was denied by Brown. She made a motion to adjourn a second time, but a 4-3 vote struck it down. She tried again, but Brown responded, "No, we're going forward."

The decision, the minority members opined, had been made well in advance of the meeting.

"I'm baffled why you feel this is needed to be done and why you feel it needed it to be done tonight," Piros said. "I feel you just jammed this through and insisted upon it …."

Penner concurred: "This is going to set the district back decades … and not only that but it will be our children who suffer and it feels that is the point. I fully expect that this will just be added to the mountain of litigation that these four board members have currently got us into."

"That's your opinion," Brown retorted.

"Some of it is opinion and some of it is fact and it will all come out," Penner responded, her voice cracking. "This has been shadiest, shadiest process ever and unfortunately it will be our children who have to pay for this because they will be losing resources out of their classrooms and those are my kids, those are my kids' classrooms that you are taking money from and that is not my opinion, that is a financial and actual reality and fact."

As the meeting waned and the vote was taken, a tearful Piros directed her comments toward the superintendent.

"Dr. Morelock, we know you and we trust you and this pains us terribly," she said. "And we know that your integrity has spurred us to be faithful to our children and we wish you well. We're so sorry. I'm very disappointed in this decision."

Morelock thanked Piros and offered some wisdom to the board: "Just remember from the darkest dark comes the brightest light. So, everything will work out eventually."

Morelock issues statement

The board didn't seek comment from Morelock before making its decision on Nov. 9. He did release a statement two days later:

"I am proud of the work we've accomplished since I arrived as interim superintendent in 2018. We've shored up the financial stability of the district and grew a projected $139,000 ending-fund balance to more than $9 million. We opened the Newberg High School Wellness Center in partnership with Providence, giving students immediate access to comprehensive mental health care any time they are in school.

"We greatly increased the scope and scale of career and technical education and expanded our dual-language program. We kept students and the community safe through a now 20-month long pandemic and provided more than half a million meals delivered by school bus during closures. Most notably, we successfully passed a $141-million bond that will build new schools, future-proof existing ones and improve the school experience for every Newberg and Dundee student.

"Leading Newberg Public Schools has been one of the great professional honors of my 29-year career in public education and I will miss everyone — teachers, students, staff, administrators, and parents —in the NPS community. I'm sorry I can no longer work with and for them and am disappointed this decision is overshadowing the education, well-being and safety of each Newberg student provided by our amazing school staff members.

My sincere hope for each student who attends Newberg Public Schools is that they feel welcomed, inspired and supported by the adults who work tirelessly on their behalf, no matter how they identify, how they look, or what they believe."

Board decision draws fire

The Newberg Education Association, which filed suit against the board in early November, called out the board's majority for its actions on Tuesday.

"Newberg educators support Dr. Morelock and the three board members who tried their best to stop this atrocity," the statement read. "Dr. Morelock has worked tirelessly on behalf of our students and staff. He has been key in the transformation of a struggling district. This move is yet another example of a board majority bringing instability to our schools."

Others joined in condemning the board decision.

"The superintendent cabinet of district administrators is shocked and dismayed that the board would take this disruptive action in the middle of the school year," the organization said in a statement. "We will continue supporting our staff in that mission day in and day out, as we wait to see what the board's plan for leadership of the district will be."

Superintendents under siege

The school board's action is not unprecedented in the state of late. In September the Adrian School Board in Malheur County fired its superintendent, Kevin Purnell, for adhering to the state's mask mandate. In exchange for agreeing not to sue the district, presumably for wrongful termination, the board agreed to pay Purnell more than $100,000, which represents the pay he would have received in the 10 months remaining on his contract.

A school superintendent in Albany was fired two weeks after new members were elected to the board in August. Melissa Goff was discharged without explanation from the board and she says none of the board members had spoken with her before casting their votes to terminate her employment without cause. She said she believes she was terminated because she had ideas about inclusiveness and equity that differed from the majority of the board members.

Morelock was hired as an interim superintendent in 2018, then became the permanent superintendent the following year.

In early August the board directed Morelock to remove all Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols from district facilities immediately. The board also directed the district's policy committee to draft language prohibiting the display of political symbols. Morelock told the board he would need to consult the district's attorney to before implementing the directive.

In late August the board hired Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel, presumably to render legal advice that their ban was constitutional. The board voted in early September to table the directive/ban.

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