New Willamette ESD superintendent sees career academy, data services as models for Oregon

A career Oregon educator who garnered national attention after being fired from the Newberg School District is taking a new job helping school districts around Salem.

The Willamette Education Service District Board selected Joe Morelock as its next superintendent at a May 8 meeting. 

Morelock was most recently superintendent of the Woodburn School District. The Newberg School Board fired him in 2021 after voicing frustration that he was not enforcing a new policy effectively banning LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags in classrooms.

Morelock will lead the Salem-based district, which offers services, training and educational programs to 21 school districts in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.

“I’m feeling very honored and privileged and excited,” Morelock said in an interview with Salem Reporter. He starts work July 3.

Educational service districts provide resources like special education, technology, data tools and more to local school districts that might otherwise struggle to develop their own systems on a smaller scale. Willamette ESD employs about 900 people and works with districts enrolling about 84,000 students — about half of whom attend Salem-Keizer schools.

Morelock replaces current superintendent Dave Novotney, who is retiring after leading the district since 2012.

“He couldn’t have been more highly recommended,” Willamette ESD Vice Chair Anna Ali said in a statement. “Dr. Morelock is a highly motivated leader with a track record of putting the needs of students first. We are confident that he will be able to lead our agency, model our core values, and help us reach our highest potential while serving our partner districts.”

Willamette ESD is unique in Oregon for two services it offers — the Oregon Data Suite, a data dashboard tool to help districts monitor student progress and identify those who need extra help, and the Willamette Career Academy.

The Salem school offers hands-on career programs in cosmetology, diesel technology, health services, construction, manufacturing and IT to high school students from 11 nearby districts which are too small to offer such programs on their own.

Morelock said the program can be a model to other educational service districts in Oregon.

“That’s a big leadership opportunity for us to show the rest of the state how a shared (career technical education) model can be employed,” he said. “You can’t do all the CTE things in each individual district. How do you merge the things that districts are doing and also provide things they’re unable to do?”

As a child in Springfield, Oregon, Morelock spent his weekends at school with his father, who taught middle school and coached varsity soccer.

Despite growing up around “the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and wax floors,” Morelock said he wanted to avoid getting into education — he had seen the long hours required firsthand.

But as he attended college and waited tables, he found himself seeking out jobs adjacent to education: tutoring adults learning English, coaching youth sports and volunteering for campfire programs. Morelock started his career teaching Spanish in the Canby School District, where he also coached golf and volleyball.

“I tried to escape it but its tractor beam was too powerful,” he said.

He speaks Spanish fluently, an asset in an area where many of the districts he serves have a large share of native Spanish speakers.

“Language is so core to your being,” Morelock said. “You think in that way, you count in that way.” He said knowing the language has helped bring down barriers when he’s speaking with students and families.

Morelock came to Newberg as interim superintendent in 2018, and the school board hired him as superintendent in 2019. After a conservative group of candidates won a majority on the board in 2021, they put forward a policy banning displays deemed “political” or “controversial” from classrooms. Morelock declined to enforce it, raising concerns about its constitutionality, and a Yamhill County Circuit Court judge later ruled the policy unconstitutional.

The board fired him without cause in November 2021 after a 4-3 vote.

Morelock said the episode reinforced his belief that all children deserve to be treated with “dignity and respect.”

“It really strengthened my belief that each child should feel safe and welcome at school, regardless of all the other stuff that’s out there,” he said. “Sometimes people, in their advocacy for what they want, they forget that they could really be hurting or putting somebody in danger.”

Both Newberg and Woodburn are within the Willamette ESD’s service area. Morelock said he’s excited to work with 21 superintendents from around the region and transition from using ESD services to helping improve and provide them.

Morelock said he’s not coming into the job with a set plan to change what the district is already doing, though he’s hoping to partner with Salem-Keizer School District leaders on some new programs.

“You don’t have to be bad to get better,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.