District Under Fire for Firing Superintendent Amid Battle Over Free Speech in Schools

Newberg School Superintendent Joe Morelock was fired Tuesday night by the school's board during a Zoom meeting in the middle of an ongoing fight.

The Newberg Education Association union and the Newberg school board are sparring about a ban that prevents teachers from displaying Black Lives Matter and gay pride symbols at the Oregon school. Morelock's dismissal deeply upset board members that were against his removal.

Rebecca Piros, one of three board members who opposed firing Morelock, told him she was sorry. "Just remember that from the darkest dark comes the brightest light, so everything will work out eventually," Morelock stated, causing Piros to cry.

Signs put up Wednesday by residents of Newberg quoted Morelock's parting words, The Associated Press reported. A demonstration was also planned Thursday at the school district office by Newberg Equity in Education, a group comprised mainly of parents against the school board's recent moves.

The four conservative board members did not explain why they fired Morelock. He now has 10 days left on the job.

"Under his leadership, new contracts with our associations brought better pay to teachers and staff, more educational school days for our students, a stabilized financial situation with a safety net of over $9 million in the ending fund balance, and the passage of the largest construction bond in the history of Newberg Public Schools," the administrators that make up the superintendent's advisory cabinet stated.

The Newberg Education Association union filed a lawsuit regarding a policy that limits the kinds of images or signs school employees can display on campus. In the beginning, the board made a rule that banned school staff from displaying Black Lives Matter and gay pride symbols. They later changed it to all political or controversial signs. They argue the policy violates the First Amendment protecting free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Oregon, Free Speech, Joe Morelock
People rallied ahead of the Newberg, Ore., School Board vote on whether to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags at the school on Sept. 28, 2021, in the file photo. The school board that recently banned teachers from displaying gay pride and Black Lives Matter symbols has abruptly fired the school superintendent, deeply upsetting board members who opposed the move. Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP, File

The escalating disputes in the Newberg School Board come as schools nationwide have become battlegrounds, with arguments over vaccine and mask mandates, how racism is addressed in teaching, instruction related to sexuality and gender-neutral bathrooms.

The superintendent's advisory cabinet, composed of administrators across the school district, quickly objected, saying they were "shocked and dismayed that the board would take this disruptive action in the middle of the school year."

They described Morelock as a tireless advocate for the schools, noting that he took over as interim superintendent in 2018 "with the district in significant financial difficulty after having to lay off staff."

The teachers union in Newberg denounced Morelock's termination as "yet another example of a board majority bringing instability to our schools."

In Tuesday night's meeting, board member Brandy Penner called the conservative members "cowards" and predicted they'd be sued for firing Morelock. She also pointed out that Morelock would be receiving his salary for a year and that an interim superintendent will now need to be hired.

"So we'll be paying for two superintendents and the financial and legal liabilities to the district are endless," she said.

Newberg Mayor Rick Rogers has previously told the four conservative board members their actions can hurt the town, which features a dozen wine tasting rooms and a university founded by Quakers.

"While you may believe your actions only affect the school district, please know in truth your actions impact us all. To thrive, Newberg must be welcoming to all," he wrote.