On January 27 at 9 in the morning, Texas Education Agency hearings will begin at the Fort Worth school district administration building in the case of the wrongful firing of former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo. The former administrator, teacher and Army officer was fired by the district last fall after he blew the whistle on serious illegalities by administrators at one of the city’s most venerated old high schools on the city’s West Side, Arlington Heights. It has been a long process that began in early 2009 when dozens of teachers reported serious allegations of wrongdoing to Palazzolo, including illegally changing attendance records. When Palazzolo took the allegations to the district, he wound up the hunted rather than the hunter. Even though the charges were found to be true by the district’s investigators, Palazzolo was subsequently fired for what he and his supporters claim were trumped up charges meant to “kill the messenger” and to send a message to other district employees that they would meet the same fate if they dared to report wrongdoings. He appealed the firing to TEA and late last year filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court. The story has been reported extensively in this paper.
So far, depositions for the TEA hearing have been taken from Superintendent Melody Johnson, Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna, former AHHS principal Neta Alexander and former assistant principal Kerwin Cormier, among others. Fort Worth Weekly will report on those depositions once they are released as part of the public record.
But two depositions will not be seen. Trustees Judy Needham and Ann Sutherland, both scheduled to be deposed today, will not be questioned because the district’s Dallas-based lawyers moved last week to quash their depositions. The lawyers argued, successfully, that as elected officials they were covered by executive privilege meaning that “you can’t question people for making policy decisions,” Smith said. Sutherland, who voted against firing Palazzolo, was angered that the district had denied her right to be deposed, telling Fort Worth Weekly that she was more than willing to give testimony and would “gladly testify” if called on.
That could still happen. The hearing examiner, Dallas lawyer Jess Rickman, said that his ruling did not foreclose the option to call the two trustees to testify during the hearings if testimony brought out in the trial warrented it, Smith said. Palazzolo gained a “huge win”, he said, when the judge ordered the release of documents requested by Smith regarding district employees with misdemeanor convictions — many of them DUI’s — who are still working in the schools. The district had refused the request, citing privacy issues. Rickman’s ruling stated the documents could be released with the names redacted.
The ruling is important because the reason used to fire Palazzolo was the fact that he did not disclose what the district claims are two misdemeanor convictions in his past when he applied for work with the district, one involving a dispute over child support payments 13 years ago and another that turns out to be simply an “adminsitrative violation” more than 20 years ago, not a criminal violation, when he owned a security company and hired a woman whose security license had expired. Records show that Palazzolo settled the child support dispute to the satisfaction of his ex-wife and was never in violation again. The children of that marriage are now grown. Palazzolo has insisted that he was never asked about misdemeanor convictions, only felonies and answered truthfully that he had never been convicted of such an offense.
Following the decision of the TEA hearing examinier, which could take up to three weeks, Smith said, the whistleblower case will begin in the state district court house in Wise County.
Many teachers interviewed by this reporter believe that Palazzolo will win at both the TEA level and the federal level. “I think the district is going to be out many millions of dollars at a time it can least afford it,” one said. “There are better things we need to be spending our money on than paying off whistleblowers who were right all along.” Palazzolo is the second whistleblower case the district has faced this past year. The first one, also with Smith as the plaintiff’s attorney, was brought by a finance department employee whose job was eliminated after she reported that a new computer-based payroll system being installed was not ready to be implemented. The result of the rush to implement the unproven system resulted in a total meltdown of the payroll system in which millions of dollars were overpaid to employees for months, and former employees suddenly found their bank accounts flush with FWISD funds. The district’s chief finance officer was replaced and the district is still trying to recover all of the overpayments.
More recently another lawsuit filed against the district by Sandra Brody was settled for a large but undisclosed sum.
In a footnote to this story, especially at a time when hateful speech that could lead to violence is the hottest topic of the day, Fort Worth may be lucky that the worst elected offender we have here so far is a 14-year school board member who spews her venom in emails that do not call for violence, but are pretty nasty nonetheless. In documents released into the public record in the Palazzolo case, Needham called this reporter an “evil woman” in an email she sent to Johnson, apparently because I was doing my job by asking uncomfortable questions.
Needham seems to have been upset because she was asked when she first had knowledge of the allegations of illegal activities at the school, brought out by Palazzolo. A number of teachers reported to me that they had gone to Needham often with their concerns, only to be ignored. After reporting the allegations, Palazzolo was initially transferred to another school. The question simply asked Needham if she knew of the allegations prior to the board’s approval of his transfer and if so, should she have recused herself from approving the transfer.
Needhams “evil woman” email isn’t the worst one she has sent out lately. She recently called fellow trustee Sutherland an “anarchist” and a “crazy old fool of a woman,” among other choice terms simply because Sutherland took it upon herself to file a protest against Chesapeake’s efforts to drill near an elementary school against the board’s explicit wishes. When the administration filed a protest at the last minute, Sutherland withdrew hers.
The emails from Needham and others are now part of the public record in the TEA appeal.
Meantime, public officials, take note. What you write in an email may one day wind up in this paper.