The first to go was Tommy Elliott, the winning head baseball coach at Arlington Heights High School for the last 30 years. This year he put both his glove and his grading pencil (he also taught English) on the shelf, retiring at the early age of 58.
Elliott was followed by 27 other educators who have opted to leave Heights this year, adding up to more than a quarter of the faculty of about 120 people. Thirteen of those departing are coaches, including the head coaches of baseball (Elliott), football, basketball, softball, and wrestling. Most took their assistant coaches with them. They went to more affluent suburban school districts, one coach said, where the pay is better and the problems are fewer.
That amount of turnover is huge, said one teacher who has been with the district for a decade. “I’ve never heard of so many leaving at one time,” she said.
However, Larry Shaw, head of the United Educators Association, said the losses at Heights are only “a little more than usual.
“It seems like a lot,” he acknowledged, adding that UEA, the largest educators’ union in North Texas, has not heard of any similar exodus from other Fort Worth campuses. He pointed out that the district offered cash incentives this year for teachers to take early retirement, in an effort to avoid layoffs.
At Heights, out of the 28 who left, only six opted for retirement.
Teachers and others who spoke with Fort Worth Weekly generally agreed that the departures have little or nothing to do with new principal Jason Oliver. In the summer of 2010, he took over a school racked by scandal, with an out-of-control student body and dismal teacher morale, and is slowly turning it around.
“From what I hear, [he] is doing a pretty good job,” said UEA Assistant Director Steven Poole, a sentiment several Heights teachers agreed with.
Oliver “inherited a whirlwind,” Shaw said, referring to the case of Joe Palazzolo that has hung like a sorrowful pall over the school since 2010. The former assistant principal blew the whistle on serious wrongdoings there and was fired by then-superintendent Melody Johnson for his trouble. The charges against then-principal Neta Alexander and others in her administration included falsification of attendance records — a felony offense under the state penal code — that was confirmed by an internal school district investigation. Alexander had allowed the fraud in order to keep the school from being downgraded to academically unacceptable due to the low percentage of students who graduated each year, she told investigators. She and those who helped her were allowed to retire with full benefits.
Palazzolo has filed two whistleblower lawsuits against the district; the first will be heard in state district court in Wise County in November. The cost to taxpayers for defending those suits has risen to more than $400,000 and counting.
Another teacher who stayed and was a strong ally of Palazzolo said that after the scandal, when Oliver took over, the school had to refocus academically. Athletics took a back seat.
“Teachers were suffering at the hands of the principal and her cohorts,” he said. “Palazzolo tried to change the culture of the school and got fired for it. Jason Oliver has been able to do it. We now live with hope for the future.”
Good teachers are leaving Heights, he said, for the same reasons they are leaving other Fort Worth schools: because they are getting so little pay and so little respect for the good work they do. They spend so many hours working with students, then go home, and at the end of the day they can’t even afford to take the family out to dinner.
Only 17 of those 28 vacated positions are being filled, due to new district-wide staffing allocations, Fort Worth schools spokesperson Clint Bond wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.
“The 17 filled positions at AHHS [are] exactly in line with our new staffing ratios,” implemented by Superintendent Walter Dansby, Bond said. Even though the district’s population is growing, there is no money to hire new teachers, thanks to the recent draconian cuts in education funding by the Texas Legislature. The district has opted to increase class sizes, combine classes, and eliminate some courses to deal with the shortfall.
Schools trustee Ann Sutherland pointed out that the ban on firing teachers didn’t save the jobs of dozens of low-income support staffers who were laid off, from library aides to kindergarten aides, adding to the already heavy burdens on overworked teachers and librarians. Sutherland was the only trustee to speak out in opposition to the low-echelon layoffs. Her data (available on her website, www.Sutherlandforschools.org) show that 150 teaching positions will be eliminated by the time school starts due to the “efficiencies in the master schedule.”
Such “efficiency” means only one thing to teachers, said a long-time Heights staffer who asked for anonymity, as did all teachers who were interviewed for this story. “The classrooms are going to fill up, and teachers’ hours are going to get longer,” he said.
The changes forced by the district will have a profound effect on all schools over time, another Heights teacher said. “The daunting demands … on today’s teachers are absolutely enormous,” said this teacher. The district-mandated changes are going to foster “huge pockets of discontent … and may precipitate even more to leave next year,” she said.
Losing so many coaches is a “very big loss to the entire athletic program,” said one coach who is staying on at Heights. That coach and a teacher who is also staying both said the school’s focus under Oliver has been on academics rather than athletics. Yet the coach believes that athletics should be an equal partner, since sports programs encourage some students to stay in school and to do better in class than they otherwise might.
He said that funding cuts are making it tougher and tougher for inner-city schools like Heights to address the needs of their large numbers of low-income kids. “[N]o matter what happens to them before they come to us, a one-parent home, abuse, a series of foster homes, homeless shelters, or even living on the street for some, and bad experiences in elementary and middle school — we have to make sure they pass the TAKS,” the coach said. “Then, if they don’t do well on the state- and federal-mandated tests, the teachers get the blame. It’s a no-win for teachers now, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone when teachers begin to leave.”
Money is another reason for the loss of coaches at Heights, he said. Two years ago, the district cut the stipends — additional pay — for coaches by 10 percent across the board, he said. Those stipends ranged from $5,100 to around $13,000 depending on a coach’s base salary. And there have been no teacher raises for a couple of years.
The pay scale in Fort Worth is lower than most of the surrounding suburbs, he said.
One teacher who left after a decade in the classroom said his decision was based primarily on money but also had roots in the Palazzolo case.
“Morale [under Alexander] was bad even before Joe was fired, but he was one of the best assistant principals we ever had,” he said. Palazzolo was a strong disciplinarian, but he was fair,” the teacher said. “He was making a difference in those kids’ lives. When he was fired for doing the right thing, morale hit its lowest point.”
Oliver, he said, is a good and fair principal and is turning the school around — but it was too late for this teacher.