An Oregon school board that just weeks ago banned teachers from displaying Pride flags and Black Lives Matter symbols abruptly fired its superintendent during a Zoom meeting this week in a move that upends an entire school district just months into the start of the new school year.
The Newberg School Board voted to terminate the contract of Superintendent Joe Morelock late Tuesday night, in a process that board director Brandy Penner, who voted against the firing, called “the shadiest, shadiest process ever.”
A group composed primarily of parents known as Newberg Equity in Education was expected to demonstrate on Thursday at the office of the Portland metropolitan-area school district, which enrolls roughly 5,000 students across 10 schools in Newberg, Dundee, and the counties of Yamhill, Washington, and Clackamas.
In an email to The Daily Beast on Thursday night, Morelock said he had been terminated “without cause” more than two years before the end of his contract, but was proud of the work the district had accomplished, including shoring up financial stability and opening a wellness center for students.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
In emotional denunciation of the 4-3 vote during Tuesday’s meeting, Penner said children would suffer the consequences of the decision to boot Morelock.
“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,” she said. Penner was joined by board directors Rebecca Piros and Ines Pena in opposing the superintendent’s firing.
Piros said she felt the decision to remove Morelock -- who was backed by more than 29 years of experience in public education -- had been “jammed through.”
“I just feel that this has been on your agenda since day one,” Piros said, addressing board chair Dave Brown.
Brown and three conservative board members—vice chair Brian Shannon and board directors Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart—declined to provide a reason during Tuesday’s meeting that would explain the sudden decision to fire Morelock, who was given just 10 days to clear out his desk.
“I protest that none of you had anything to say why you wanted to do this,” Piros told the board.
“It’s done,” Brown replied before Penner interjected that the conservative wing angling to remove Morelock were “cowards.”
The board members who pushed for Morelock’s firing did not immediately respond to a request from The Daily Beast on Thursday explaining the reason for his termination, but they had been rallying for months to ban Pride flags and Black Lives Matter symbols on district school grounds.
In September, the board voted to ban its educators from displaying so-called “political” symbols that included Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols on district campuses—a move that came weeks after a teacher at a school in the district was fired for appearing at school in blackface to protest a vaccine requirement for staff.
In an interview with KOIN 6 after the vote, Piros suggested that the board had soured on Morelock due to his failure to quickly remove the symbols.
“I know there’s been dissatisfaction that Joe has not responded quickly enough to taking down of BLM flags or rainbow flags,” she said.
Morelock declined to speculate on the reason for his firing. “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,” he said in his email.
Earlier this month, the Newberg Education Association union sued over the policy, and Penner predicted Tuesday that more lawsuits would follow in the wake of Morelock’s firing.
Morelock’s termination was quickly criticized by administrators and community members who questioned why the board had made such a rash decision just months into the start of the school year.
On Wednesday, some Newberg residents erected signs honoring Morelock, who told a tearful Piros during the meeting, “Just remember that from the darkest dark comes the brightest light, so everything will work out eventually.”
Penner said she had “cried multiple times,” ahead of the vote, while suggesting that the board’s conservative wing was setting the district “back a decade.”
“We will be losing a leader who has pulled us out of financial ruin, who has rebuilt [the] community, who has rebuilt relationships,” she said of Morelock, before blasting the members that had voted for his removal. “I am certain that this will have rippling effects for months and years to come, and I doubt that all four of you will even be here when the rebuilding really gets to beginning.”