Laundry Day

A lot of the Fort Worth school district’s dirty laundry got aired in Joe Palazzolo’s trial.
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Posted April 30, 2014 by ERIC GRIFFEY, @ericgriffey in News
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There is nothing quiet about the courtroom on the second floor of the Wise County courthouse. The cherrywood floors in the 118-year-old building creak with every step, and heavy, unforgiving wooden pews moan loudly at the slightest movement. Sound bounces around the Victorian-era room like pinballs in an arcade game, amplifying coughs and murmurs. And yet the room was completely silent when the jury emerged after two hours of deliberation.

The group of seven women and five men had listened to five days of testimony and seen stacks of evidence in the whistleblower trial of Joe Palazzolo. The former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal was fired after reporting various wrongdoings at the school, including attendance fraud, disparate treatment of minority students, misappropriation of funds, and the inappropriate behavior and grossly obscene language of some faculty members.

When administrators chose to cover up the wrongdoings instead of acting on them, Palazzolo took his grievances to the Texas Education Agency. That action plunged his life and career into chaos. In July 2012 he sued the Fort Worth school district for wrongful termination.

More than four years after his report, on a March afternoon in Decatur, the foreman handed the jury’s verdict to District Judge John Fostel. The tension was thick as the judge paused for what seemed like hours before reading it aloud.

Palazzolo (center, with attorneys Mark Scott and Victoria Neave): “I’m just glad I’m not crazy.” Courtesy Joe Palazzolo

Palazzolo (center, with attorneys Mark Scott and Victoria Neave): “I’m just glad I’m not crazy.” Courtesy Joe Palazzolo

The jury found in favor of Palazzolo, awarding him total damages of more than $2.4 million.

It was a long road to that moment for Palazzolo, who felt both vindicated and reassured.

“I’m just glad I’m not crazy,” he told Fort Worth Weekly that day.

Despite the victory in court, many teachers and district employees still fear retribution and declined to comment for this story, as did Palazzolo.

Palazzolo’s saga is the stuff of soap operas. After filing the report with the TEA, he was demoted, transferred twice, put on administrative leave, then fired, reinstated, and fired again. He has sat through and testified at numerous hearings. His trial in March was the second time his whistleblower case had made it to that courtroom. The first trial was short-circuited after only one day, when the school district agreed to a settlement — which the school board then proceeded to blow up by insisting on changes, including a demeaning new job for Palazzolo, that he refused to agree to.

The failed settlement actually came as good news to many who have supported Palazzolo but who also believed his lawsuit was their best chance for a public airing of the district’s dirty laundry — specifically, what they see as widespread intimidation, cronyism, and corruption.

On that point, the trial delivered. Testimony and documents painted vivid pictures of the intimidation and underhanded dealing that many district employees have long alleged. Teachers, administrators, and district employees testified about living in constant fear of retaliation.

Several of those employees testified that Michael Menchaca, the head of the district’s Office of Professional Standards, was the district’s main tool of intimidation. So perhaps it was no accident that the district selected him as its observer for the trial. Over and over, teachers and staffers who took the stand pointed at him when asked if they felt intimidated at that moment.

School board member Ann Sutherland said she too felt threatened by the district’s lawyers — even as she testified. Her time on the stand made clear why district officials might not have wanted the public to hear her evidence, including testimony about a one-sided presentation of evidence regarding Palazzolo when the board was deciding whether to fire him.

Lawyers for the district also presented less than flattering evidence about Palazzolo, mostly from fellow teachers and administrators who called him versions of a bully — and yet none of those complaints appeared in Palazzolo’s personnel file before he made his report to the TEA.

A Fort Worth police officer even testified about how district officials appeared to be trying to blame Palazzolo for a rash of burglaries (which had already been solved) because some stolen laptops that were recovered had been stored — by the officer — in Palazzolo’s office. Palazzolo’s accuser in that instance: the assistant principal he had accused of committing attendance fraud.

“This is a textbook case of retaliation,” said Mark Scott, one of Palazzolo’s attorneys.

After the trial, juror Terry Hines wouldn’t go into detail about the discussion in the jury room but did offer sympathy for Palazzolo.

“It was a long, drawn-out case,” he said, “but not near as long and drawn out as what Mr. Palazzolo went through.”

********


23 Comments


  1.  
    J.C.

    Good article, Eric. I’m probably not the only one to wonder where the millions of dollars that are involved in this long-running corruption cover-up come from exactly. I’m almost certain, no money came out of the pockets of these perps because of their choices, which reflect their obvious lack of care for any personal financial losses.

    Does the FWISD have a fund set aside to pay for all the legal fees and judgements/settlements involving its many losses in lawsuits brought by former employees in recent years? If so, where does the money come from to create and refill this special fund?

    Maybe, FWISD has insurance coverage for such matters. Even so, are taxpayer dollars Used to buy the policy? Furthermore, after this pattern of losses and wrongful conduct on the district’s, wouldn’t the premium increase significantly? Or the policy gets non-renewed…just like homeowner or auto policies where the insured keep getting into situations where they have to pay lawyers to defend them in lawsuits and then paying for damages and judgements/settlements after they lose the lawsuits.

    For those who have been keeping tabs, how much are the legal fees and how much are the awards to plaintiffs against FWISD (or just Joe Palazollo’s case alone)? How is the District going to pay for it.

    I realize that Mr. Palazollo’s defamation suit against Coach Dansby will likely be covered by his insurance policies, the professional one and possibly his homeowner one if appropriate (if awards exceeds coverage by the primary policy). I’m guessing Coach Dansby will settle the suit without going to trial because his own piccadillos and personal history could be exposed in such a lawsuit involving personal reputation–focusing on the damage to Mr. Palazollo’s reputation but involving the reputation of his perpetrator as well. Coach Dansby probably wants to settle before he has to answer many hours of embarrassing questions during deposition.

    Can’t the many teachers and staff who have been mistreated or “fear retaliation” in this District’s mafia-like culture file some kind of administrative (labor or education) or civil rights complaints to get some relief? Or get the union(s) to file suit for an Injunction against such tactics? How about just a class-action suit against the District?

    Can parents and taxpayers file suit against the District and its officials (not for money but for court ruling/order) to prevent them from further abuses, which leads to losses in time, focus, energy, and money that would and SHOULD have been used for the education of their and the community’s children–which impacts the local economy, as seen in Dallas’ mayor explaining that the main reason Toyota Corp. chose the more expensive move to Plano over Dallas was because of the messy school district that is DISD?

    I am no fan of lawyers or lawsuits but it looks like the PEOPLE paying taxes and voting for FWISD do not have the concern or the will to take the political route of protests, pressure, electing good Trustees. Not any time soon, anyway. That’s not good enough because hundreds of thousands of precious lives and futures will be sacrificed, along with hundreds of millions of hard-earned tax-payer dollars will continue to be wasted over the next few years.




  2.  
    T. Smith

    To be fair, the culture of corruption in Fort Worth and Tarrant County is not that unusual all across Texas and even the nation. The same with the public’s apparent sense of helplessness, apathy, and/or ignorance while dutifully paying their hard-earned taxes to enable such abuses of public trust, authority, and money. See FWISD, Tarrant Regional Water District (Jeff Prince will likely have a story out soon after the ridiculous sideshow from Tuesday morning), Tarrant County Community College District and Tarrant County Hospital District/JPS Health (both cleaned up after media scrutiny and public pressure), and MHMR of Tarrant County, to name a few.

    Tarrant County and Fort Worth governmental bodies and official corruptions seem to have many similarities to El Paso, with the main differences being that El Paso still has its moral compass as a community which led its newspaper of record to expose the truth with the community (God bless the FW Weekly but it’s just not the same as a daily newspaper of record in terms of resources, reach, and influence) and that El Paso has leaders and citizens with moral clarity and backbone to help get rid of bullies, thieves, and their ilk that were stealing from hard-earned taxpayers and the people that the money was intended to help–and the damage to the moral climate and the reputation of their community. Their school district’s former Superintendent sits in federal prison and their MHMR Board and leadership were replaced, along with the rippling effects downward as is normally the case in any organization (both positive and negative).

    The El Paso Times took the lead and local city leaders,county commissioners, and state representatives responding to public outcry by using their authority and influence to call in state and federal authorities to help augment local authorities drag away those ensconced corrupt officials and their well-constructed operational structure and personnel. It was new and encouraging to see three state representatives attend the TRWD Board meeting Tuesday. While the Startlegram was present they seem to have no interest in following up with any kind of reporting about the many instances of abuse, corruption, legal violation, nepotism, etc. I’m sure that Jeff Prince and the FW Weekly will do so much better than that former reputable local newspaper.

    TRWD Board Director Mary Kelleher made a great point Tuesday when she pointed out some of the incestuous connections inside Fort Worth and Tarrant County government officials, starting with the District Attorney’s Office where the County’s Lawyer pretty much is a criminal sexual predator and thus has practically no moral strength or credibility and living off the tax payers until his term finally ends this year. As the previous DA went after the corruption in Tarrant County MHMR in the 90′s (reported by FW Weekly), let’s hope that incoming DA Judge Sharon Wilson will faithfully carry out her duty to the citizens by investigating wrongdoings that have festered way too long and costed our community way too much–in more ways than money.




    •  
      Arnold Ziffel

      I love your remarks about our formerly reputable daily local. It’s not worth my time to pick it up today.




  3.  

    Good article Eric but I was hoping for more details on the trial itself. Other than Sutherland, did anyone else from the board testify? Who from the administration testified? Did Alexander testify? What was their testimony if they did? If you could include that kind of information in a future article I know others would like to know similar information?




    •  
      Eric G

      Off the top of my head, just Sutherland, Robbins, and Needham from the board; and Menchaca, Ray, Reyna, and Melody Johnson from admin., all of whom were mentioned in the story. Alexander did not testify. The only person from administration who testified that I didn’t mention in the story was Carla kaufman from HCM. Two teachers from Heights testified against Palazzolo who I left out of the story.




      •  
        Observer

        Palazzolo and two of the Teachers testified about the poor performance of counselors at AHHS who were under Cormier’s supervision. After a parent and his Teacher found their Special Needs student had been placed in the wrong classes because his counselor had failed to review his file, the Counselor REFUSED to correct her error until Palazzolo got involved. Palazzolo found 23 additional Freshman had likewise been mis-assigned – some in advanced classes. Another teacher testified her home had been burglarized and her dog beaten. Days later, the individual who was charged was actually placed in her class by a counselor who refused to move the student until Palazzolo sent the teacher downtown to complain. There is just so much that came to light…….




    •  
      Stoutimore

      I second that. Good story.




  4.  
    Curious

    What gives an attorney working for and advising the Board the right or authority to kick out a sitting Board Member (his very employer) who was under subpoena to tell the truth? Why did no other Board Member defend her right to stay? Where was fearless leader Moss? What does that say about the testimony of Robbins and Needham? Up to Ann’s constituents now. They were totally disenfranchised in that meeting.




  5.  
    Arnold Ziffel

    I’m just so happy for Palazzolo! From the moment this story broke, it was pretty obvious he was being singled out as an example; an example of wrongdoing never committed. The false and misleading pieces the ISD has attempted to use against this man are beyond comprehension. I can only hope he cleans house in his defamation case. There was no excuse for that, either. I’m just sorry Betty isn’t still here with us to be Needham’s “horrible woman.” Eric has done a superior job of continuing the complete coverage. If Needham is looking for a “horrible woman,” I’m sure there’s a mirror in the ladies lounge.




  6.  

    The kind of abuse of power and attempted career and character assassination of Palazzolo by school administration outlined in this case is not limited exclusively to Fort Worth I.S.D. It happens all the time in a lot of other Texas school districts as well. Don’t believe me? Then try teaching in one and deviate from the unwritten “party line” in your classroom and see how long it takes you to find out for yourself.




  7.  
    Justice

    I find it interesting that the Dallas Mayor gets scrutinized for telling the truth about their school district, yet OUR Mayor is nowhere to be heard about FWISD and hasn’t since she took office! Yes, I wonder if it is because FWISD, its board, and our city are cut from the same cloth of corruption, as is TRWD!!! So far, no one else but the Weekly, as usual, have reported any of this…coincidence? Now, the district faces another black eye with the Defamation suit, and still, Dansby is still here, not to mention Ray, Menchaca, Kaufman, and most of the board!!!??? Districts get taken over for this kind of stuff, considering that not only are they squandering our tax dollars, but also obviously not improving our schools! The climate of fear, retaliation and intimidation still exists within the purview of this district, even after they lost in court for espousing the very same thing!

    After being behind the scenes through this mess; I keep wondering how Joe and his family keep their cool and their faith through all of this, especially when they are faced with yet another lawsuit and then some. And then they can’t help but to still feel on guard, because the district continues to play legal games, in spite of it all. Even if Dansby leaves, the common denominator all these years, including the psycho, Tocco, is Needham! This is why it will take an act of God to remove all these power hungry people from this district. One has to only look around and see who has something being named after them…their legacy. One has to see that their ego’s (and riches) are their main focus. In all of this, our kids and employees continue to suffer at the hands of their sick and evil self serving ways.
    You naysayers out there have judged us for our “theories”, but truth always prevails. It has been these “theories” that has opened the flood gates of truth…yes, TRUTH! I have faith that “truth” will continue to prevail, while the masses continue to run and hide the bodies.

    Stay strong Joe and don’t let them bully you into a corner again! There is more that will find its way to the public’s ears and eyes. You have helped many rise from the ashes, including yourself. God will NEVER give us more than we can handle…believe it!




  8.  
    Justice for All

    Could a sitting Board member please answer me this. Is the District (taxpayers) having to “foot the bill” for Dansby’s defense against Palazzalo’s defamation lawsuit? If so, please explain why. While I understand that Dansby made the comments in a meeting of the Board, weren’t they made as his own opinion, not based on any factual, legal testimony? Dansby’s not representing the citizens of the District when he makes such irresponsible statements that are of his own opinion/declaration. He’s certainly not an elected representative, he, on his own, should have to defend his opinions— not us. He got on that roller coaster ride, we the taxpayers didn’t. Don’t take us on that ride that ends with an uncompleted drop-off!
    If nothing else, Dansby’s defamatory comments and the resulting lawsuit should be the deciding factor in ending his unspectacular tenure




  9.  
    Message to Norm Robbins

    I have followed this story and your votes in this matter for some time. Of the nine seated Board Members, you alone work for a major defense contractor who helps set the international standard for a safe and productive work environment. Lockheed is a corporation who exemplifies everything that is corporate American success – everything FWISD should strive to be as an organization – and is NOT. As a Lockheed employee, you work in an environment free from fear of retaliation and focused on mission. Yet that is not the environment you have helped create in FWISD. Your actions in support of FWISD’s cover up, deceit and retaliation are abhorrent. You have consistently acted against every harassed, assaulted, maligned and slandered employee whose issue has come before the Board. You have been on the wrong side of the Palazzolo issue from the beginning. Your own testimony demonstrated you are out of touch with the organization you are supposedly overseeing. The retaliation, patronage, and uncontrolled spending continues with you actually testifying there is none! On top of that, you stood by as a fellow Board Member was slandered and barred from a Board Meeting simply because she told the truth. You even voted to censure her a year ago once the Board thought Palazzolo had settled. Why? Because other willingness to testify then! You sir are a disgrace and your actions are not only baffling, but are a direct reflection on the employment practices of Lockheed. You are a bully and your actions on the FWISD School Board should be troubling to your employer. The Jury heard the Teachers and believed them – NOT YOU. It appears obvious your legal advice over the past four years has been lacking. It speaks volumes about your character that you still defend it. Lockheed would never have allowed this to happen and in the least, would have ended this long ago. It is time someone at Lockheed took note of your actions and role in this on-going mess to see if you really are the type of person they thought you were. Someone they would want in their organization. Wake up. End this madness and move on. Stop being the unethical politician. FWISD needs to be about educating children – not endless litigation rooted in nepotism and retaliation. Time to do the right thing.




  10.  
    Audrey

    It seems that FW ISD has pretty window dressing, but the inside of their house has a bit of cleaning still to do.

    This past week in the District Employee Relations Council meeting, a man stood up and asked for specific training to help stop GLBT bullying in school. Dansby’s body language said it all, with a a roll of the shoulders and eyes. I realized that whenever we have diversity training, the pink elephant in the room is GLBT kids.

    I kept hearing “what’s best for the kids” in that meeting, and the man had a point. 2,000+ students are being harassed, and probably about 400 teachers are, too, for being who they are. That’s not indicative of a district that truly values diversity.

    The non-discrimination clause is great, but it’s not enough. Teachers and principals need serious training, not vague and forgettable training, in order for the district to live up to what it professes. Additionally, GLBT people are now a protected class! The district, with its recent history of litigation, should be proactive and get everyone, not just counselors, trained! How long will it be, in the current environment, before another suit is brought by someone who is needlessly harassed?

    After seeing these comments, I am afraid of retaliation, too, for asking for more of something that’s needed desperately, but that is unpopular with the downtown administration! It shouldn’t be this hard to say that xyz people exist in the world, and to live and let live.




    •  
      Spike

      If it ain’t BLACK, get back! Look at the $ and resources that his royal Blackness puts into his alma maters and still they perform poorly. It’s all about his minority group and helping them. and to hell with the rest of us, who are brown, white, LGBT or any other group! When MJ was Super, all the resources went to the affluent schools. Just look at the color that has been majorily represented on the BOE in the past! Hell, look at it now! The only of the board has been comprised of It’s time we get a Super, who will go for ALL groups! This racist pompous ass needs to go now!




  11.  
    Agree

    It all starts and ends with the Board. Just look at their voting record. Three people are older than dirt and have no concept of modern education. Too busy naming schools and fields after themselves. The biggest bigot is also the only one working in corporate America.




  12.  
    Go Figure

    Just when you thought FWISD could not get ANY worse, they hire a professional trough feeder to advise them on restructuring an organization he has been already advising them on since the Summer(?). Wonder of the sheep who voted for this knew they were already paying him for his services. Just in case you are reading this, this is the same guy who defended MJ and got her the position at TCU. Some complain about welfare recipients, those on food stamps or other public assistance as not contributing to society. This is a guy who lives off of selling his own B.S. to the very ISD he supposedly supervised. Think there is a conflict there? Our only hope is the Feds coming in.




  13.  
    Outraged Taxpayer

    That opportunist is Bill Keilor former board president who was against giving employees a living wage increase when he sat on the board. . He has no problem in helping himself to taxpayer dollars via Dansby and the board since a 5 million dollar contract was awarded to TNTP. Having spent his life working at TCU, what experience does he have other than being a board president? The district is modeling itself to Houston ISD! Teachers beware, value added evaluations are sure to cramp your style. 2000 teachers left Houston last year. Our taxpayer money at work hold board members accountable! If you decide to appeal what a jury of his peers has awarded, be ready to have challengers. Those who are new don’t just vote to get along, study the facts and make the right decision. The jury of his peers was convinced!




  14.  
    Interest

    With every moment the Board allows Dansby and his over paid, two-bit TASB attorneys to continue to drag this out, will Palazzolo be paid interest back to the date of his termination? What do they care? It’s our money – not theirs. This just keeps going from bad to worse.




  15.  
    linda labeau

    Dear Commenters:

    You have it right. It is time for a taxpayer revolt in Fort Worth. The abuses of fiduciary duty by the FWISD board is rampant…and continues because it has gone unchecked. Obviously a verdict award means nothing to this board. It was whispered to me the board is just waiting for Joe to die before paying him anything. As for Mr. D. his mind was made up years before Joe’s trial began. He made no secret he had no intention of settling this suit. As to comments about the Mayor and in my opinion the Chamber being MIA, when the tax base erodes maybe they will start to pull their heads out of the sand. With a dysfunctional public school system how many mid to upper executives would buy a home in Fort Worth when they can buy in Aledo, Colleyville and/or Grapevine. I work with families with children with learning disabilities. Recently realtors are starting to call me for information about FWISD services for kids with learning disabilities. I can only report what I know.

    As more citizens become aware and involved, there will be a tipping point. I just hope it comes sooner than later. Finally, get a copy of the “2013 FWISD internal financial audit” if you really want to see how financially mismanaged the district and board has been.




    •  
      Spike

      @Linda Labeau: Since you are the only one on here using her real name, and obviously not afraid of retaliation from the district, why aren’t you contacting someone to go into FWISD and investigate? I’ve seen your name on comments on the Weekly here and there throughout the last few years, encouraging the taxpayers to do something. Here’s a clue, the taxpayers aren’t doing anything, because they don’t know what is going on! We have the worthless Telegram to thank for that. Speaking from someone who has been retaliated and bullied by people in this district, it is going to take someone on the outside looking in to encourage the powers to conduct a massive investigation into the corruption at FWISD. I feel the corruption is so deep rooted that it will take heavy machinery to pull them ALL out.





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