Blockbuster testimony today that Fort Worth school district lawyers threatened a friendly witness following his testimony yesterday on behalf of Joe Palazzolo may have blown the lid off the district’s entire case that Palazzolo’s firing last fall from his job as assistant principal at Arlington Heights High School was not retaliation. Palazzolo has always claimed it was nothing but retaliation and that he was targeted after he reported serious wrongdoings at the school; now the district’s lawyers may have helped prove him correct. One can only ask, “What were they thinking?”
Sources at the hearing this morning reported to Blotch that Chad Whitt, a special education teacher and head coach of boys’ soccer at Heights, told the Texas Education Agency judge hearing Palazzolo’s appeal of his firing that he was threatened with termination yesterday after testifying for Palazzolo. It was a stunning revelation.
Over the district’s attorneys’ objections, Whitt was put on the stand this morning by Palazzolo attorney Jason Smith and related a chilling scene to the hearing examiner and observers at the public meeting. Shortly after he testified Tuesday that Palazzolo was one of the good guys at Heights and that he felt the former principal was fired in retaliation for reporting serious illegalities at the school, he said, he was asked to go into a private room by the five lawyers for the district, including three outside lawyers from the Houston law firm Walsh and Anderson and the district’s counselors, Bertha Whatley and Tanya Dawson. At that point in the testimony, Whitt, a big man with a calm demeanor, lost his composure momentarily and as one observer put it, “The man just broke down and cried.” When he recovered, he testified that a Walsh attorney told him “We have a problem.”
The seven-year employee said he was told that the lawyers were going to recommend to the “proper people” in the district that he be put on administrative leave with the possibility that he too could be fired because he had “lied” on his on-line application when he said he had not been convicted of a misdemeanor. “That is what this case is about,” he testified that he was told by one of the Walsh attorneys. “And we have to treat everyone the same,” she said. Whitt’s misdemeanor was for “kicking a car” when he was 17; it occurred 21 years ago and had supposedly been expunged, he testified.
When Smith asked if he felt that his job was now in jeopardy, Whitt, who teaches emotionally-disturbed kids and is the head soccer coach as well, replied, “Yes.”
“I am shocked and appalled that the district would threaten termination of a witness in this case in the middle of the trial,” said Steven Poole, deputy executive director of the United Educators Association, the largest teacher union in the area, of which Whitt is a member.
If lying on his application about a misdemeanor sounds familiar in this case, it is because it is one of the reasons the district has stated for firing Palazzolo, claiming that he too lied when he answered “no” on his on-line application question as to whether he had ever been convicted of a misdemeanor. The district had found a 13-year-old misdemeanor in Palazzolo’s records having to do with a disputed child support case in Oklahoma, which was settled and, Palazzolo believed, expunged. He had every reason to think it was expunged, he testified earlier, because in eight criminal background checks, three of them with the Fort Worth district, the case had never shown up—and he introduced evidence in the form of an email from the district’s legal head, Bertha Bailey Whatley, to Superintendent Melody Johnson that stated that Palazzolo’s background checks were all clean. Also, no one in the district even began to look into Palazzolo’s background until after he reported the series of wrongdoings at Heights that have led to the pressured resignation and/or retirement of three administrators and a girls’ head coach. Whitt was one of the dozen or more teachers who also reported the wrongdoings at the school and has been a vocal supporter of Palazzolo from the outset even going so far as to speak publicly on his behalf at a school board meeting before the board voted to uphold his firing on a 6-3 vote.
Now it seems to be Whitt’s turn to be targeted, but the district may be on even shakier ground in his case. Under questioning from Smith yesterday, Whitt admitted that he had committed a stupid act as a teenager by kicking and denting the doors of a car of a guy who was flirting with Whitt’s girlfriend. “I kicked a car,” he said. “I was a kid.” He went on to relate that he paid for the damages, the guy dropped the charges and he was told by the judge in the case that the record would be expunged. However, the district has long been aware of his case, he said on the stand. When he applied in 2004, a fingerprint check found the “expunged” record. Whitt was asked about it at the time, explained it, he said, and was told by whoever was interviewing him (he could not remember the name) not to worry, it was so minor as to be insignificant. He was hired and has passed every background check since.
Adding to the district’s woes on this one was the testimony today of Carla Kaufman, senior staffer over the district’s health and wellness department, who blew a hole in the “you have to be treated like everyone else” comment when she testified that there were multiple employees who had lied on their applications about criminal convictions and even their degrees, who are still working for the district.
Earlier this paper reported on at least eight employees found guilty of or arrested for serious criminal acts ranging from child molestation to rape to aggravated assault to DUIs who are still employed. And Whatley, under an open records request, released to this paper a list of 29 names of employees who had misdemeanor convictions in the past two years who are still employed.
Yesterday, five teachers besides Whitt spoke on behalf of Palazzolo, all testifying to his integrity, his ability to work with difficult kids and his contribution to the school and the freshman team that he oversaw. (See Static in this week’s print edition, Feb. 9, 2011.) Other witnesses on his behalf are scheduled for today.
All who have testifed so far confirmed that Heights was out of control when he came on as an assistant principal and that his leadership had gone a long way toward turning the school around. They also said that he did not discriminate against minorities, another accusation that the district has used against him. Quite the contrary. His supporters have said that he helped all students without regard to their color or class. It was the principal Neta Alexander who discriminated against minorities, favoring the richer, white kids at the school, they say. Alexander was forced to resign after the district investigation found that she had ordered a staffer not to report certain truancy cases in order to keep her completion rates high and that she oversaw falsification of attendance records that allowed at least 21 students who were chronically truant to graduate who otherwise would not have. Both actions are violations of state law yet no charges have been brought against the former principal or her cohorts who helped her falsify documents.
The hearing, which is one of the longest in TEA history, is scheduled to end tonight. A report will be issued in a few weeks. Whatever the hearing judge’s decision, Palazzolo and his attorney say he will see the district next in district court where he filed a whistleblower lawsuit late last year against the Fort Worth schools for his retaliatory firing. The next such case to hit the district could be Chad Whitt’s.