TEA Hearings to Begin on Palazzolo Case

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Posted January 18, 2011 by betty.brink in Blotch

On January 27 at 9 in the morning, Texas Education Agency hearings will begin at the Fort Worth school district administration building in the case of the wrongful firing of former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo. The former administrator, teacher and Army officer was fired by the district last fall after he blew the whistle on serious illegalities by administrators at one of the city’s most venerated old high schools on the city’s West Side, Arlington Heights.  It has been a long process that began in early 2009 when dozens of teachers reported serious allegations of wrongdoing to Palazzolo, including illegally changing attendance records. When Palazzolo took the allegations to the district, he wound up the hunted rather than the hunter. Even though the charges were found to be true by the district’s investigators, Palazzolo was subsequently fired for what he and his supporters claim were trumped up charges meant to “kill the messenger” and to send a message to other district employees that they would meet the same fate if they dared to report wrongdoings. He appealed the firing to TEA and late last year filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court. The story has been reported extensively in this paper. 

So far, depositions for the TEA hearing have been taken from Superintendent Melody Johnson, Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna, former AHHS principal Neta Alexander and former assistant principal Kerwin Cormier, among others. Fort Worth Weekly will report on those depositions once they are released as part of the public record.

But two depositions will not be seen. Trustees Judy Needham and Ann Sutherland, both scheduled to be deposed today, will not be questioned because the district’s Dallas-based lawyers moved last week to quash their depositions. The lawyers argued, successfully, that as elected officials they were covered by executive privilege meaning that “you can’t question people for making policy decisions,” Smith said. Sutherland, who voted against firing Palazzolo, was angered that the district had denied her right to be deposed, telling Fort Worth Weekly that she was more than willing to give testimony and would “gladly testify” if called on. 

That could still happen. The hearing examiner, Dallas lawyer Jess Rickman, said that his ruling did not foreclose the option to call the two trustees to testify during the hearings if testimony brought out in the trial warrented it, Smith said. Palazzolo gained a “huge win”, he said, when the judge ordered the release of documents requested by Smith regarding district employees with misdemeanor convictions — many of them DUI’s –  who are still working in the schools. The district had refused the request, citing privacy issues. Rickman’s ruling stated the documents could be released with the names redacted.

The ruling is important because the reason used to fire Palazzolo was the fact that he did not disclose what the district claims are two misdemeanor convictions in his past when he applied for work with the district, one involving a dispute over child support payments 13 years ago and another that turns out to be simply an “adminsitrative violation” more than 20 years ago, not a criminal violation, when he owned a security company and hired a woman whose security license had expired. Records show that Palazzolo settled the child support dispute to the satisfaction of his ex-wife and was never in violation again. The children of that marriage are now grown. Palazzolo has insisted that he was never asked about misdemeanor convictions, only felonies and answered truthfully that he had never been convicted of such an offense. 

Following the decision of the TEA hearing examinier, which could take up to three weeks, Smith said, the whistleblower case will begin in the state district  court house in Wise County. 

Many teachers interviewed by this reporter believe that Palazzolo will win at both the TEA level and the federal level. “I think the district is going to be out many millions of dollars at a time it can least afford it,” one said. “There are better things we need to be spending our money on than paying off whistleblowers who were right all along.”  Palazzolo is the second whistleblower case the district has faced this past year. The first one, also with Smith as the plaintiff’s attorney, was brought by a finance department employee whose job was eliminated after she reported that a new computer-based payroll system being installed was not ready to be implemented. The result of the rush to implement the unproven system resulted in a total meltdown of the payroll system in which millions of dollars were overpaid to employees for months, and former employees suddenly found their bank accounts flush with FWISD funds. The district’s chief finance officer was replaced and the district is still trying to recover all of the overpayments. 

More recently another lawsuit filed against the district by Sandra Brody was settled for a large but  undisclosed sum.

In a footnote to this story, especially at a time when hateful speech that could lead to violence is the hottest topic of the day, Fort Worth may be lucky that the worst elected offender we have here so far is a 14-year school board member who spews her venom in emails that do not call for violence, but are pretty nasty nonetheless.  In documents released into the public record in the Palazzolo case, Needham  called this reporter an “evil woman” in an email she sent to Johnson, apparently because I was doing my job by asking uncomfortable questions.

 Needham seems to have been upset because she was asked when she first had knowledge of the allegations of illegal activities at the school, brought out by Palazzolo.  A number of teachers reported to me that they had gone to Needham often with their concerns, only to be ignored. After reporting the allegations, Palazzolo was initially transferred to another school. The question simply asked Needham if she knew of the allegations prior to the board’s approval of his transfer and if so, should she have recused herself from approving the transfer.

Needhams “evil woman” email isn’t the worst one she has sent out lately. She recently called fellow trustee Sutherland an “anarchist” and a “crazy old fool of a woman,” among other choice terms simply because Sutherland took it upon herself to file a protest against Chesapeake’s efforts to drill near an elementary school against the board’s explicit wishes. When the administration filed a protest at the last minute, Sutherland withdrew hers.

The emails from Needham and others are now part of the public record in the TEA appeal.

Meantime, public officials, take note. What you write in an email may one day wind up in this paper.

 


5 Comments


  1.  
    FWISDleaks

    The citizens of Fort Worth do not realize that the top leadership has misused their power over and over. We question Dr. Melody Johnson capacity of handling the business for the district. She is causing so many troubles.

    The millions of dollars that will be granted in lawsuits under Melody Johnson leadership will leave the district in a financial catastrophic. She should pay from her pocket. She is highly overpaid to make good judgments and make decisions that represent the dignity and integrity of the citizens. The children funds for their education are been utilized to defend mismanagement. Lawyer feeds are very high and especially the ones that have to do with education.

    Vision 2010 was short of been accomplished. The board extended Melody Johnson contract for what? The more we scrutinize the Fort Worth ISD business, the more we will find that incompetency is part of the routine and agenda.

    If our money is going to be spent for lawsuits instead to the education of our children, why do we have to maintain the status quo with this administration?

    Congratulation to all recipients of settlements! I have been playing the lotto for many years. Maybe working in Fort Worth ISD will increase the probability of wining money to solve my financial problems. We believe if you do the right thing you suffer the consequences and that will entitle you for some compensation.

    Fort Worth WAKE UP.




  2.  
    Clarity

    Melody Johnson must go. Who proposed the vote to extend her contract? Chistene Moss. Who pushed the Boy’s Academy @ Dunbar 6 without notice to parents? Christene Moss. Who told residents last night they “might want to hold their comments” for the meeting Thursday night? A meeting set at the last minute after public outrage? Ray Dickerson. Who PANICKED over her deposition? Judy Needham. Who is paying Moss’ campaign debts? Needham. Did any notice if T.A. Simms was awake last night? We HAVE to clean house on this Board and the District. Budget cuts should begin with Johnson’s approx. $335,000 salary.
    That is outrageous. NO employees should be driving FWISD cars or trucks home. The public needs to send a message that we want MORE whistle blowing employees coming forward.




  3.  
    Maria

    The board is scheduling retreats to subdue Vasquez, Sutherland and Rangel. The board president believe this board is dysfunctional because the personal attacks.

    Let’s retreat for the coverup.

    Our sincere congratulations to the winners of lawsuits. Our deepest and sincere words of encouragement to all children and taxpayers of Fort Worth, our money is been dilapidated.




  4.  
    Betty Brink

    A couple of errors to correct in the above story:
    Chuck Boyd, retired associate superintendent was not deposed as reported. ; the Palazzolo whistleblower lawsuit will be filed in district court in Wise County, not federal court, The whistleblower lawsuit settled was with Sandra Brody.
    I regret the errors.




  5.  

    Needham needs to be careful about “name calling”. Her lifestyle could come into questions and finally become ppublic if anyone scratches the surface of her fundraising organizatioon. they will find out it is a sham. Chuck Boyd also cut a side deal with his resignation to get paid off so he wouldn’t talk about what he knows about MJ’s organization..Every taxpayer needs to pay attention to how these “old timers” have survived on the board. Needham pays Moss’ campaign funds. It’s time to wipe this board clean with exception of Rangel, Vasquez and Sutherland.





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