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(EDITORIAL) The elephant not in the room: Dr. Morley’s conduct undermines DeKalb School Board

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(EDITORIAL) The elephant not in the room: Dr. Morley’s conduct undermines DeKalb School Board

DeKalb County School Board member Dr. Joyce Morley virtually attends the boards regular meeting on May 9, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This editorial has been updated.

It would be unfair to pin the entirety of the DeKalb County School Board’s dysfunction on one person.

But it would be fair to say one board member contributes more to that dysfunction than her colleagues. It also happens to be the board member who is never physically present at board meetings, instead choosing to lob her verbal grenades at a safe distance. 

Dr. Joyce Morley did not attend the first day of a recent DeKalb School Board retreat. The main goal of the retreat was to address the dysfunction on the board, a dysfunction that she has played a significant role in creating. 

We sent Dr. Morley an email asking her why she skipped the retreat. Dr. Morley did not respond, but we will update this editorial if she does.

Dr. Morley has not attended an in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic, even when her colleagues began attending meetings in person again. 

Not attending meetings offers Dr. Morley the advantage of not having to look her colleagues in the eyes when she makes provocative statements. 

Dr. Morley’s rants, both during meetings and outside of them, are actually a wonderful gift to reporters. They make for great copy and entertaining stories. As a local news publication, we’d love to keep her as a school board member for life. What would this website do without her? 

Unfortunately, when it comes to education, having a school board member the press finds entertaining is seldom a good thing for the students. 

Dr. Morley has alienated many parents in our community with her divisive statements about race.

She argued against attending in-person school because she believed “whites” wouldn’t take COVID-19 seriously. 

Dr. Morley denied saying what the video shows her saying, insisting she actually said “rights.” You can watch the video and draw your own conclusions about that one.

Rudy Crew, a finalist for superintendent who never got the job after the board decided not to hire him, won a $750,000 settlement after accusing the school board of discrimination. In the suit, Crew, who is Black, accused Dr. Morley of making comments about Crew’s late wife being white

At school board member Marshall Orson’s last board meeting in December, Dr. Morley had some parting words for her white colleague.

“I hope one of the things you’ll remember, whenever a Black woman is speaking –  a smart, intelligent, beautiful bold Black woman is speaking – you’ll learn when to speak up and when not to speak, and you’ll always have some R-E-S-P-E-C-T for that bold Black woman,” she said. “I’m going to miss you because you did come in, and you would say some good things, but along the way, hopefully, you’ll just remember those things and remember those boundaries you need to have.” 

Dr. Morley’s controversial statements aren’t limited to her opinions about race. When the school board fired the former superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, Dr. Morley’s conduct was, to put it mildly, unprofessional

She accused other board members of ignoring previous illegal actions by the board and district, lying to the public, excluding her from decisions, and encouraging members of the public to call her a gender-based slur.

“It wasn’t illegal for board members to be behind someone in the community, excuse the expression, calling me as a board member a c***,” she said during that meeting.

She appeared to blame other board members for her being named in Crew’s lawsuit against the district. She accused board members of wanting to commit murder.

“It constantly is shown that board members are willing to try to kill off each other,” Dr. Morley said.

We could go deep down a rabbit hole chronicling her wild statements at meetings, but it would frankly be exhausting. We pity the folks at Cognia, the nonprofit accreditation agency, for having to watch more than 20 hours of board meetings for their review. Cognia’s recent report on the district found the board had made little progress on addressing its dysfunction, while tactfully avoiding naming one of the primary causes of that dysfunction.

Dr. Morley’s conduct is the elephant that is not in the room but still looms large over the school board, literally, at every meeting. 

While Dr. Morley’s behavior drives the board’s dysfunction, it is enabled by board members who let her speak long after it’s become obvious she isn’t making a point and is instead airing a list of grievances. That’s been the case for multiple meetings now. Most of the time, the board and staff members ignore her, looking at their cell phones while she takes a flamethrower to the school district.

The board has a new chair, Diijon DaCosta, and while this publication hopes he will do a better job than previous board chairs of keeping Dr. Morley’s comments constructive and focused, history indicates otherwise. DaCosta is allied with previous board Chair Vickie Turner, who quietly endured Dr. Morley’s abuse and allowed others to suffer through it, too. 

The “Dr. Morley Show” might be entertaining if there weren’t serious problems facing the school district. 

The school district’s enrollment is declining, test scores remain in the basement, the central office is in dire need of key employees and the board is looking for a new superintendent after abruptly firing the last one.

That’s not all Dr. Morley’s fault. The pandemic was hell on all of us. But Dr. Morley’s behavior makes it difficult for the board to hold the superintendent accountable for addressing those problems. As the board looks for its next superintendent, we must wonder what candidate would find working for Dr. Morley appealing. 

While her colleagues may find it convenient to tune her out, it’s a certainty that many potential candidates for the superintendent job have been listening and decided to pursue other opportunities.

When offered an opportunity to meet with her fellow board members at the recent retreat to repair their damaged relationship and make progress on these issues, Dr. Morley declined. 

Following the retreat, School Board member Allyson Gevertz posted a photo on Facebook showing the six board members who attended it. The board members looked to be in accord, as people in such photos often appear. 

“I believe our Board of Education has turned a corner,” Gevertz said. 

But Dr. Morley –  and what she might say next – is looming around that corner. If the school board can’t figure out how to deal with her, the board will remain dysfunctional for the foreseeable future.  

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