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

“It all comes down to timing,” said Victoria Neave, the other member of Palazzolo’s defense team.

She and Scott made a large poster of the chronology of events in the case, which they said showed that the district’s efforts to demote and fire Palazzolo began only after he made his report to the TEA.

Until that point, in August 2010, Palazzolo was an up-and-coming administrator in line for a promotion. In fact, when administrators first started trying to demote him, then-Superintendent Melody Johnson refused to OK the change because Palazzolo’s employee record was spotless.

“Ann Sutherland testified that Mr. Palazzolo had a clean file,” Neave said. “So none of [the anonymous reports of Palazzolo’s bullying] was in his file, and now all of a sudden that appeared in his file after he made that report. We felt like Fort Worth ISD was trying to fish for statements against Mr. Palazzolo.”

Judy Needham was questioned about her association with the Linebarger law firm. Matthew Blake

Judy Needham was questioned about her association with the Linebarger law firm. Matthew Blake

Much of the school district’s case against Palazzolo followed the script laid out in a 27-page report authored by the district’s former administrative chief, Sylvia Reyna. Her report detailed the wrongdoings at Arlington Heights as well as a litany of charges, many unsubstantiated, against Palazzolo. The report quoted several anonymous sources who called Palazzolo a bully and accused him of mistreating minority students.

The district’s initial reason for firing Palazzolo –– that he lied on his employment application about past “criminal” violations — was proven to be false. Reyna and Johnson reported to board members that there were felony convictions against Palazzolo in Oklahoma that dated back 15 and 20 years, even though none had shown up on his numerous background checks.

The reason nothing had turned up was that the “felonies” were not felonies at all. One was a civil-court dispute with an ex-wife over child support, which Palazzolo had settled and paid years before, described in court documents from the time as a “petty offense.” (The fine was $10.) The second was a ticket he had received as the owner of a security firm because one of his employees had let her license run out. The resulting fine had also been paid, and even the ticket had been expunged from his record.

The same day it voted to fire Palazzolo, the board also voted to give its tax collection contract to the Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson law firm.

When board trustee Judy Needham took the stand, Scott questioned her about her association with Barbara Williams, a partner in that firm, which also collects delinquent taxes for Tarrant County, Fort Worth, Oklahoma, and many other government entities.

Needham testified that she and Williams are friends and that she’d seen William socially shortly before the contract was awarded.

“Didn’t you talk to her about that contract?” Scott asked.

“I have no way of remembering,” Needham replied.

The following month Palazzolo received a letter from Linebarger trying to collect a $435 debt he had allegedly once owed to the state of Oklahoma. Linebarger claimed the debt, with late fees and penalties, had ballooned to $26,000. Palazzolo testified that he never owed the money.

Another of what Neave called “red flags” in the defense’s case involved a series of burglaries at Heights and throughout the surrounding neighborhood. A number of laptops were stolen from the campus, and many were recovered. Fort Worth Police Sgt. Brent Halford, who investigated the case, testified that a suspect confessed to the crimes, and Halford left the recovered computers in Palazzolo’s office.

Months later, Halford said, he got a call from Menchaca, who suggested Palazzolo as a suspect in the case.

Menchaca was being fed information by Kerwin Cormier, the vice principal singled out by Palazzolo for attendance fraud. A TEA auditor found that attendance fraud had occurred at Heights. Cormier was ultimately transferred to the International Newcomers Academy –– the same school the district intended to send Palazzolo to when administrators tried to get him demoted.

In an e-mail exchange between Cormier and Menchaca obtained by the Weekly, Cormier asked Menchaca to “just let me know when you’re ready for me to quit sending evidence. There is tons more and statements I could write about other incidents.”

 ********

On the trial’s second day, a teacher who asked that her name be left out of this story testified about the culture of intimidation and retaliation at the school district. Neave asked if she was afraid to testify.

“I’m afraid the same thing is going to happen to me that happened to Joe,” she said. “I’m very worried that if I attempt to get a promotion I won’t, because I testified here.

“We all feel like that,” the teacher said.

One after another, the teachers and district employees called as witnesses by Palazzolo’s attorneys echoed those sentiments.

Palazzolo has filed a defamation suit against Dansby. Lee Chastain

Palazzolo has filed a defamation suit against Dansby. Lee Chastain

“The fear of retaliation was evident in almost every witness we put on the stand,” Neave said. “I think it was compelling for the jury to hear that they too were afraid. Because that’s the culture of Fort Worth ISD, of fear and retaliation. They [teachers and staffers] don’t want to bring their complaints forward because they don’t want anything to happen.

“Mr. Palazzolo ended up bearing the brunt of the school district’s power,” she said.

Chad Whitt, a special education teacher and soccer coach, a hulking man of about 6-foot-5, broke down on the witness stand when he recalled the events that took place after he testified at a TEA hearing about the goings-on at Heights.

“I was asked to go to a back room,” he said. “There were seven lawyers. They explained to me they were going to recommend my termination based on my testimony.

“I was pretty devastated,” he said. Whitt never pursued charges against the district.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the trial, Sharon Herrera, the district’s former human resources coordinator in charge of diversity training, admitted that she had changed her testimony from the TEA hearing. In that hearing she testified that Menchaca had never asked her to alter documents.

On the stand at Palazzolo’s trial, she admitted that she had lied and that in fact Menchaca had asked her to change documents during the course of an OPS investigation. She said she lied because she feared retaliation from Menchaca.

“Why are you changing your testimony?” asked Thomas Brandt, who led the district’s legal team.

“Because he’s here,” she said tearfully, pointing at Menchaca, implying that he needed to hear those allegations.

Palazzolo also broke down on the stand, as he testified about the strain the ordeal has been on his family life.

“I’m not the only person they have done this to,” he said. “We just happen to be in a position to fight it.”

He also testified that former deputy superintendent Patricia Linares told him that “If you had kept your mouth shut, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Another story was told by the teachers and other staffers called on behalf of the school district. They said they too feared retaliation –– from Palazzolo.

 ********

Former Heights counselor Valerie King testified that Palazzolo created a hostile work environment and spoke to students with “like a military feel — it was over the top.”

She and the other Heights staffers repeated the phrase “my way or the highway” to describe his leadership style –– something Palazzolo denied ever saying.

King was also involved in an incident in which Palazzolo accused her of tipping off a student’s mother that police were coming to the school to pick up her son, whom they suspected was involved in the string of burglaries. King said she was just returning a phone call to the student’s mother. But the boy was not in class by the time the police arrived.

“The next thing I know, Mr. Palazzolo was calling the police on me for obstruction of justice,” she said.

Attorneys for Palazzolo confronted her with a letter she had written to Palazzolo praising his leadership. At that point she broke down.

“I knew you would dig that up,” she told Scott during his cross-examination.

Another counselor, Danyatta Harrell, said that she wanted to quit her job after working with Palazzolo.

“It’s one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had,” she said. “Joe was a bully, he was aggressive, his tone was condescending. I witnessed him being condescending to students.”

Cormier testified that she documented three occasions on which Palazzolo represented himself as the school’s principal. She also claimed that punishment rates for 9th-grade minority students, who were under Palazzolo’s authority, tripled under his tenure. She even accused him of knocking an ice cream cone out of a student’s hand.

All of the teachers and staffers called to testify by the defense were supervised by Cormier. All were asked if they thought Palazzolo should be allowed around children, and each said no.

In her own testimony, Cormier called Palazzolo “the most inherently evil person” she’d ever met.

********


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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