Laundry Day

A lot of the Fort Worth school district’s dirty laundry got aired in Joe Palazzolo’s trial.
23
Posted April 30, 2014 by ERIC GRIFFEY, @ericgriffey in News

Through the trial, jurors heard wildly varying descriptions of people, situations, and events.

In something she called “the biggest incident I dealt with in my five years at Arlington Heights,” Cormier accused Palazzolo of turning a field day into “an all-out race war” by making kids from different races settle their disputes with a game of tug-of-war. Palazzolo disputed her account of those events.

Field-day events on that occasion did degenerate into racial epithets and physical confrontations, which led to several injuries, but there were no fights on the football field, where Palazzo was supervising activities. Palazzolo’s attorneys alleged that school administrators made their client the fall guy for the administrators’ own failure to adequately supervise the courtyard where the fights did break out.

Although the school district initially denied most of the problems at Heights reported by Palazzolo (based on the reports brought to him by numerous teachers), the district also claimed that their own administrators and not Palazzolo had actually blown the whistle on the troubled high school.

Assistant Superintendent Robert Ray testified that he acted on information passed on to him by trustee Judy Needham.

Menchaca told the jury that he was investigating problems at Heights when Cormier made complaints against Palazzolo, and that’s when he began to look more closely at the assistant principal.

Reyna backed up that account, saying that Palazzolo wasn’t a part of the initial investigation. She said that she received two anonymous letters about him and eventually came to believe he was a part of the problem.

The school board has a month to decide whether to appeal. Lee Chastain

The school board has a month to decide whether to appeal. Lee Chastain

Brandt did not return multiple phone calls from the Weekly.

But Neave said the district’s legal strategy didn’t surprise her.

“We knew they would try to make [Palazzolo] out to be the bully, as an individual who was discriminating against minority students, when in fact he was the one who reported discrimination against minority students,” she said.

In his closing argument, Brandt characterized the attendance fraud that happened at Heights as little more than a paperwork error.

And yet a TEA auditor found that during a six-week period in 2009, the school had reported numerous students present in their classrooms when in fact they were not, and the agency fined the district almost $18,000.

********

Some of the most damning testimony against the district came from Sutherland. Palazzolo was indeed retaliated against, she said.

Sutherland also said that when the board was considering whether to fire Palazzolo, the information provided by staffers was seriously incomplete.  Omitted from the packet were most of the 80 letters written by faculty and staff of Heights in support of Palazzolo.

“We insisted on seeing some of the Arlington Heights letters, and they sent us five or six really poor ones with no signatures,” she said. “Then [former Weekly reporter] Betty Brink came out with all of these incredible letters. And the people who supported him were very clear in their reasons.

“The district deliberately withheld information that we asked for,” she said.

Brink, who died in 2012, wrote extensively about the Arlington Heights scandal.

In one of the more bizarre moments in the trial, Brandt appeared to threaten Sutherland while she was on the stand. Brandt was adamant that she not be allowed to testify, and the attorneys for both sides argued the point without the jury present.

“He said my statement made it possible for me to be prosecuted,” Sutherland said.

Neave agreed with the characterization. “Brandt appeared to be threatening Sutherland and suggested that she needs an attorney to represent her before she testified,” she said. “I felt like he was trying to intimidate her right there on the stand,” she said. “I told the judge that we think, on the record, that opposing counsel is trying to threaten our witness, and the judge agreed. He said something to the effect of that he won’t tolerate that in his courtroom.”

Sutherland, who initially voted not to fire Palazzolo, testified that she believed the district had no grounds for doing so.

“They went around and dug about things after [the TEA report], and presented them to the board,” she said.

She testified that when she voted to fire Palazzolo on a second vote, she was acting on bad advice from the district’s attorneys, who presented her with only the options of firing him or going through another hearing.

At a school board meeting after she testified but before the verdict was announced, Brandt refused to let Sutherland take part in the board’s executive-session discussion of the trial. Needham and trustee Norman Robbins, both of whom testified as witnesses for the district, were allowed to take part.

 ********

Last week’s verdict might not be the end of Palazzolo’s fight with the district.

Brandt said afterward that he would be “exploring appellant options with our client,” as he rushed out of the courthouse. The school board discussed the possibility of appealing the verdict in closed session last week, but no vote was taken.

Even if the district doesn’t appeal the verdict, Palazzolo isn’t done with them yet. In March he filed a defamation suit against Schools Superintendent Walter Dansby. The basis of the lawsuit is a leaked audio of a school board executive session in June in which the trustees discussed whether or not to settle the lawsuit with Palazzolo.

On the tape, the trustees repeatedly said they didn’t want Palazzolo around children. In what turned out to be a moment of foreshadowing, Dansby told the trustees he would “rather lose in court” than allow Palazzolo around kids.

There was never any allegation made public or shared with Palazzolo about any substantive misconduct with students.

The audio file, posted on the district’s website, was available for several days before being taken down. Sutherland told the Weekly at the time that parts of the discussion are missing.

Brandt will also defend Dansby in the defamation case. Neave said she expects a date to be set for that trial in the next few weeks.

Judge Fostel set a May 1 date for a hearing on the attorneys’ fees the district owes Neave and Scott. The Texas whistle-blower act provides that court fees and attorneys’ fees be reimbursed by any party found to have violated the act.

The district has 30 days after May 1 to appeal the verdict.

“So much has already been spent fighting this case,” Neave said. “Does the community really want this to draw out for another one to three years?”

Neave said she hopes the verdict will send a message to the district. “We hope Fort Worth ISD will cease its retaliation against hardworking teachers, especially our witnesses, who had no choice but to testify because they were subpoenaed,” she said. “We’re appreciative of the witnesses, who told the truth despite their overwhelming fear of retaliation.”

In their testimony, both Robbins and Needham denied that any culture of intimidation and retaliation exists.

Sutherland, who herself was censured by her board colleagues for a litany of alleged offenses, including taking up too much of the staff’s time fulfilling her open-records requests, disclosing confidential information, and attempting to discuss non-agenda items in executive session, said that culture does exist and that it will take new leadership to change it.

“I see no evidence that the leadership of this district or the majority of the long-standing board members will be in any way persuaded to reconsider their roles in the management of this district, including the rampant existence of bullying,” she said.

 


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.





Leave a Response

(required)


+ nine = 17