To No One’s Surprise, Whistleblower Gets the Axe
After numerous impassioned and emotional speeches on his behalf, the Fort Worth school board last night voted 6-3 to fire Joe Palazzolo, the embattled ex- assistant principal and whistleblower at Arlington Heights High School.
Trustees Ann Sutherland, Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez voted against the termination, with Vasquez, who took aim at Superintendent Melody Johnson’s “poor leadership,” stating that the district provided no supporting documents to justify Palazzolo’s firing. “I begged them to take the firing off the table,” he said afterwards.
Earlier Sutherland and Rangel told Fort Worth Weeklythat nothing they had seen justified firing the whistleblower. Johnson and Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna, who oversaw the investigation of both Arlington Heights and Palazzolo, both said the district had “solid evidence” to support the allegations raised against Palazzolo. “They will get a chance to show that evidence at trial,” Palazzolo said, “since they haven’t shown it to me yet.” He was referring to the whistleblower lawsuit against the district that he filed Monday.
Nonetheless, the board’s action brought to an end an administrative process that began in June when Palazzolo was first transferred to an alternative school in what he called retaliation for bringing complaints about serious wrongdoings at the school to the administration, including, among many, falsifying attendance documents and breaking the truancy laws of the state. Ironically, those allegations have largely been upheld by a district investigation, a point hammered on by Palazzolo’s supporters at the meeting.
Palazzolo said he was disappointed but not surprised. “I have done nothing wrong. The charges against me are based on rumors and anonymous sources. The district went after me for telling the truth, and Johnson was determined to get me because she sees me as the one who was not afraid to expose the corruption at Arlington Heights. She knew about it, and so did [board member] Judy Needham, he said. “They knew long before I spoke out that these illegalities were going on there, but covered them up.”
Heights special-ed teacher and head soccer coach Chad Whitt said he was “putting my job on the line,” by publicly supporter the former assistant principal. He asked the board to vote against the termination stating that Palazzolo was the “best thing that had ever happened at Heights,” he had the support of the majority of the teachers there and he was now “being crucified” for reporting the truth. “We hear loud and clear … that if you come forward, if you do the right thing, you will be retaliated against.”
Just before the vote on Palazzolo’s fate, one of his supporters, the Rev. Kyev Tatum, was escorted out of the meeting after applauding too long following an impassioned appeal from board member Carlos Vasquez for the board to “do the right thing” and vote against Palazzolo’s firing and fire Superintendent Melody Johnson instead. “I am a preacher,” Tatum said, grinning, “and when we hear good news, we stand up and shout ‘Amen’ and clap our hands.”
The board was also told last night that two top administrators deeply involved in the Heights scandal — former assistant superintendent Chuck Boyd, accused of unethical behavior, and former Heights principal Neta Alexander who was found to have committed fraud — have resigned with no further charges against them. Two others found to have committed fraud, girls athletic director Isabelle Perry and her lover, assistant principal Harold Nichols, were allowed to resign earlier.
“Firing the whistleblower is terribly wrong, especially when the allegations he raised were upheld by the district’s own investigators and the real guilty parties are allowed to resign with no further action. …That sends a chilling message to employees that retaliation is what they can expect if they speak out or file a grievance,” said Larry Shaw, head of the 7,000 member United Educators Association.
President Ray Dickerson closed the session with a reminder that while the board was done with the Palazzolo case, it was far from over as the next step in the process will be Palazzolo’s appeal to a Texas Education Agency hearings examiner, with all the rights and privileges of a legal proceeding, including document discovery, sworn testimony, subpoena powers, and the right to cross-examine witnesses. And, Dickerson emphasized, a hearing that will be “fair.”
And of course, there are those pesky investigations by the TEA and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office.
This paper will be doing a follow-up on this never-ending story in the coming weeks.