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.
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.