Newberg School District in court, accused of violating public meetings law

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon school district that sparked controversy in 2021 over a decision to ban diversity symbols was in court Tuesday after parents sued it for allegedly violating public meetings law.

The trial, which opened in Yamhill County, stems from a lawsuit filed in 2021 by a group of seven parents against the Newberg School District and four school board members.

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In court filings, the parents accused the school board members of meeting in secret, separately from the board’s three other members, to discuss the firing of the district’s superintendent and the hiring of an attorney who helped oversee a ban on Black Lives Matter and gay pride symbols, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The parents also alleged the district failed to properly notify the public about the meetings during which the votes to fire Superintendent Joe Morelock and hire attorney Tyler Smith occurred, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, citing court documents.

The four school board members named in the lawsuit voted to fire Morelock in November 2021. The board’s three other members were upset by the move and claimed the conservative board members fired him because he didn’t aggressively implement the ban on diversity symbols.

The district and the four current and former school board members say they didn’t violate public meetings law.

Chelsea Pyasetskyy, attorney for the board members, said that just because they communicated with one another doesn’t mean they met in violation of the law. In court filings, she stated there was “no evidence” to support the parents’ claim “other than engaging in speculation.”

“It is not and should not be a battle of political views or ideological stances,” she said in court filings.

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,” they said.

Newberg, a town of about 25,000 nestled in Oregon’s wine country, is located some 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Portland. The ban on diversity symbols divided the town and made it an unlikely focal point for the national battle over schooling between the left and right.

The bench trial runs through Thursday. Yamhill County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Easterday will decide the case and any penalties instead of a jury.

Easterday also heard a separate lawsuit over the district’s diversity symbols ban. She ruled it unconstitutional in September 2022.

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