Board delays decision on next Newberg school superintendent
When the conservative majority of the Newberg school board voted in early November to oust the district's superintendent, board chairman Dave Brown advocated for an accelerated process to name Joe Morelock's successor by January. The move elicited suspicion by the three minority members of the board since plans to replace Morelock had been in place for months.
Then it was revealed that Brown had approached Marc Thielman — the controversial former superintendent of the Alsea School District and a Republican candidate for governor — about becoming the district's next superintendent. Thielman acknowledged the conversation, but indicated he wasn't interested in the job.
Brown, without consulting with or receiving permission from the board, then approached assistant superintendent Derrick Brown about the position. Morelock's former cohort declined and soon after resigned to take a position in another district.
Nearly five months later — when Brown insisted that the board delay choosing one of the three finalists for the superintendent position until next week to give the board an opportunity to further interview two of them — how did it strike other board members?
"As ironic!" director Brandy Penner said in an email. "This is the first superintendent search for the majority of the board. This lack of experience was seen in the attempt to rush a hire in January and is now apparent in the drawn-out process of a third unplanned interview."
Several weeks ago the board narrowed the list of candidates from the six who originally applied for the superintendent job to five who were interviewed, then down to three who were interviewed a second time: Dan Busch, Stephen Phillips and Jacob Hall.
Undertaking a self-directed search, the school district retained the services of Northwest Leadership Associates to recruit candidates in concert with the board's counsel, Lisa Freiley of the Willamette Education Service District.
On April 26, the board narrowed the field to Busch and Phillips after finding Hall wanting.
"Mr. Hall was a strong candidate, but the board seemed to feel that he did not have the experience we are looking for," Penner said.
The board stopped short, however, of choosing between Busch and Phillips, deciding they needed more information before making a decision.
"We have a huge decision for the next superintendent and (so) we're going to be bringing candidates back for another interview," Brown said. "We feel it's very important that we … have Mr. Dan Bush and Mr. Stephen Phillips back for another interview. And, so we will be meeting with them as soon as we can possibly set those schedules, and we will get through that interview process, and then we will announce our next superintendent."
Vice-chairman Brian Shannon concurred with his cohort.
"I know it's late," Shannon said at the end of a four hour-plus regular meeting and executive session on April 26. "I know a lot of people probably stayed up late for that decision, but we still have some more questions to ask."
The district has set May 5 as the day Busch and Phillips will return before the board in executive session to answer questions and provide more background on their pasts. The board is expected to render a decision at its regularly scheduled May 10 meeting.
A factor that may be hampering the board's ability to choose between the two candidates is a lack of detailed information about Phillips' performance at his last two posts. He was placed on paid administrative leave by the 175-student Jewell school board in March and is under investigation there for undisclosed reasons.
In March 2018, Phillips was forced to resign his post as deputy superintendent of the Beaverton School District after he posted on social media a tweet that said immigrants kill thousands of Americans every year and are "more dangerous than assault rifles." The original tweet was distributed by a group calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Penner said the board shouldn't have been surprised to hear of Phillips' record in other districts.
"His employment history and troubles are well known in education circles," she said, adding that his past indiscretions didn't disqualify him in some board members' view.
"Mr. Phillips' direct top-down leadership style appeals to some who see our educators as defiant," she said. "Mr. Phillips has been described as having strong political and religious views that he brings into leadership, which strongly appeals to some people in our community."
It's apparent that Phillips has been eyeing a position in Newberg for some time.
"In a recent community forum, Mr. Phillips stated that he had spoken to previous district employees regarding the superintendent position," she said. "These conversations started as far back as December. It is clear that he has been looking at this position and making connections here for some time."
Phillips' named in court case
A review of court records indicate Phillips has faced some legal issues over the past two years.
In January 2020, former Jewell basketball coach Dave Samuelson filed a petition for writ in Clatsop County Circuit Court against the Jewell School District, Phillips and the school board after Phillips fired him from his coaching job when an assistant coach and family friend claimed sexual harassment.
"The plaintiff enjoyed coaching basketball at Jewell School and the actions of the defendants functionally deprive plaintiff of that opportunity," the petition said.
The petition further claimed that Phillips penned a letter recommending the school board dispose of Samuelson as coach and ban him from attending athletic and other school events in the tiny timber town east of Seaside. The petition also claimed Samuelson has a grandson in the district that is being unfairly affected due to Phillips' decision.
Samuelson claims the school board is culpable because it followed Phillips' direction without engaging "in sufficient reading and review of materials and documents submitted to the school board to allow the board an informed and reasonable decision."
Samuelson, who says his contact with the assistant coach was consensual, also says the school district and Phillips failed to follow the district's own definition of sexual harassment in its policy and employment manuals and took hostile action against Samuelson in his part as a whistleblower.
Samuelson requested that the court direct the defendants to reverse their finding that he engaged in sexual harassment during his term as a coach and remove all sanctions against him. Phillips, the school district and school board asked that the court dismiss the writ "in its entirety and with prejudice," award them legal costs and whatever relief the court deems adequate.
In its formal answer the school district denied employing sanctions against Samuelson and went on to deny the majority of the allegations against it.
The court declined to dismiss the writ and at an April 12 hearing set the matter to go to trial in September.
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