It was not the outcome he wanted but it was the outcome he expected, said Jason Smith, attorney for Fort Worth ISD whistleblower Joe Palazzolo, given the fact that the judge was being paid by his opponent.
Late Friday night he and Palazzolo got the long-awaited news that Texas Education Agency Hearing Examiner Rick Rickman had upheld the Fort Worth school district’s firing of the former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal last year on all but one count.
“Because of the appearance of impropriety, the hearing examiner’s decision lacks reliability, but we now look forward to presenting Joe’s case to a jury that is not being paid a fee by the Fort Worth ISD,” Smith said. “Can anyone really believe they are getting a fair trial from someone who is being paid by the other side?”
Smith was referring to what he called a huge conflict of interest on the part of Rickman, an attorney from Dallas who was appointed by TEA as an “independent” judge to hear the appeal of Palazzolo’s firing by the district after he reported allegations of illegal and improper acts by a number of administrators and a coach at the venerable old school in 2009-2010, most of which were found to be valid by a five-month-long district investigation. The principal, a coach, an assistant principal and an assistant superintendent have all resigned or been forced into retirement after being found to have committed fraud, engaging in improper sexual relations, using foul and vulgar language, and violating district policy. The illegalities were first reported by this paper last August. Palazzolo contends that he was fired in retaliation for reporting the offenses because of the embarrassment it brought to the administration of Superintendent Melody Johnson.
However, the question of Rickman’s independence has been raised because under the Texas Education Code, the examiner’s $125 an hour (not to exceed $8,000) fee must be paid by the district. And in fact, that cap can be waived in special circumstances, and Rickman said in trial that he has not ruled out asking for a waiver in order to increase his fee (even though it made him “uncomfortable” to do so) given the volume of documents to review, the large number of witnesses called and the length of the trial, which was one of the longest in TEA history.
For that kind of money, the district should have gotten a carefully crafted document that would have no holes in it, but Rickman’s ruling is peppered with errors, the most glaring of which has turned a Caucasian girl into an African-American to prove his and the district’s contention that Palazzolo “implemented disparate disciplinary consequences for some minority students,” one of several reasons the district used to fire him.
Rickman wrote of an instance of “disrespect, bullying, and unprofessional conduct” by Palazzolo that was “reflected in a January 14, 2010 email” about a “situation that involved student S.S., an African-American.” According to Rickman, the kid was pulled out of class by Palazzolo and told she was going to fail and he wrote of other insulting accusations allegedly made by Palazzolo against the girl, leading Principal Neta Alexander to conclude that “Palazzolo did not work well with African-Americans and was constantly in conflict with them.”
The trouble with that whole scenario which took up two-thirds of a page in Rickman’s 46-page report is the fact that S.S. is Caucasian.
When asked how he could have made such an error, Rickman responded by email: “The transcript was more than 2300 pages and there were quite a number of exhibits. Meeting yesterday’s deadline was no small challenge. I will go back and look at the record in light of your comment on S.S. It is possible that a mistake could have been made, and if so, I will address it.”
If “a mistake” has been made, it is a significant one for Palazzolo’s case, since Rickman used this so-called incident to underscore his support of the district’s allegations that Palazzolo discriminated against minorities, said the Rev. Kyev Tatum. Tatum, head of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is a frequent critic of what he calls the district’s disparate treatment of students of color, and who has filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division, one of which is now under investigation by the department. He was also one of Palazzolo’s witnesses.
“This was nothing more than a Kangaroo Court,” Tatum said in an email. “We are offended they are trying to use the African-American community to spew their hateful, mean spirited deception of justice. We will stay the course …we must get this case out of their court or “process” before we will get a fair trial. The Fort Worth Way is the wrong way.”
Tatum testified that the former assistant principal was a friend of minority students and that the discrimination against minority students at Heights began long before Palazzolo came there two years ago. Other Palazzolo supporters from the school testified that he was the best thing that had ever happened for minority students, turning many of their lives around. And even though Tatum and eight teachers and coaches from Heights countered the few (and as it turned out at least one inaccurate) accounts from a couple of witnesses for the district that Palazzolo disciplined minority students disproportionately to whites, not a word of that testimony on Palazzolo’s behalf turned up in Rickman’s report.
Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who voted against firing Palazzolo, wrote in an email that he “was very surprised with the outcome. I want to look at the transcripts and make up my on mind on the merits of this case. From what I read on the [Fort Worth]Weekly blog and the Star telegram this hearing was a circus. I need to look at the evidence and take it from there.”
One of the more troubling moments of the trial, the accusation by Chad Whitt, a witness for Palazzolo and the head coach for boys’ soccer at Heights, that he had been threatened by the five lawyers for the district that he could be fired because of his testimony that he had been arrested when he was a teenager for “kicking a car,” was also not found in the report, even though tampering with or threatening a witness is a criminal offense. The lawyers denied that they were threatening Whitt, but Whitt testified that he felt threatened, intimidated and fearful for his job. “I have a family to support,” he said, “and I cannot afford to lose my job, but these lawyers made it clear that they were going to recommend to the district that I be fired,” he told the Weekly after the trial was over.
The district also tried to show that Palazzolo was a bully who brought a “hostile work environment” to the school. Not true, said the teachers who worked closely with him. They testified that he brought a positive work environment to Heights, was highly supportive of teachers and students and could always be relied upon to step in and help when they needed him. None of those statements showed up in Rickman’s report.
“This report is totally devoid” of any of the positive testimony [of the teachers who worked with him], Smith said.
Even worse, he pointed out, Rickman ignored the testimony of both Johnson and one of her administrators, Sylvia Reyna, who helped conduct the investigation of Palazzolo, that the 80 or more supportive emails the district received prior to Palazzolo’s firing, many of which asked that he be kept at Heights because of his positive influence on the kids there, were never given to the board before the board was asked to vote on Johnson’s recommendation that he be fired for cause. Neither was the board given the folder-full of positive evaluations that Palazzolo had gotten from Principal Neta Alexander, with “exceeds expectations” in most areas and with glowing statements of his positive influence on kids.
Rickman reported that Alexander testified that she had gotten many complaints about Palazzolo from parents and teachers but never documented them, did not put them in his personnel folder and did not put him on a growth plan as required by district policy. The reason she ignored policy, she testified, was because she “didn’t want him to tear her school apart.” When he didn’t get his way, he “wreaked havoc,” on a school, she said. What Rickman did not report was the fact that while she found Palazzolo to be an “out-of-control” administrator, she had nonetheless recommended him for the principal’s job at Metro High School, an alternative school for troubled kids. Alexander said it was because she thought his penchant for harsh discipline would be a good fit for the kids at Metro and that she wanted him out of Arlington Heights. Rickman did not report that.
Nor did he refer to the testimony of Sharon Herrera, formerly of the Office of Professional Standards, the department that investigated the allegations that were brought by Palazzolo and at least 15 other teachers at Heights before it turned its sights on the whistleblower. Herrera worked closely with Palazzolo and other teachers there to bring the allegations of wrongdoing to light and she testified that she believed that Palazzolo’s firing was retaliation. Not only that, she said that she was fearful for her job because of her testimony. Herrera was transferred out of the OPS after the investigation of Palazzolo began. She also testified that while working for OPS she was pressured to find something to fire a certain teacher for because he was considered a troublemaker (he was an advocate for teachers and an activist with the United Educators Association.) “They wanted me to ‘fudge’ the report” on this teacher, she wrote in a text message to a colleague. She testified that she refused and was told by her superiors at OPS that if she didn’t help them, they would never be able to get rid of this teacher.
UEA president Larry Shaw also testified on behalf of Palazzolo, shooting down accusations that he acted improperly with a student when he asked her three times to leave the 2009 homecoming dance because four of the kids she arrived with were found to be drinking. The girl said he touched her on her shoulder in an effort to lead her out of the dance. The district argued that that was “inappropriate” but Shaw, who knows the law and the district’s own regulations, said that teachers can put their hands on a student in order to remove them if they refuse an order to leave a certain area as this girl did. That incident was also used as a reason to fire him even though the girl testified that Palazzolo was not aggressive and that he did not hurt her. She was just angry because her friends couldn’t enter the dance. This girl’s prominent Westside family filed a complaint with the district in August of 2010, even though the incident occurred in October of 2009.
As for the dance, two police officers who were there and who determined that certain kids were indeed drinking, testified that Palazzolo acted in a “professional manner.” This accusation was the only one that did not pass Rickman’s muster. He wrote that the district failed to prove “by a preponderance of the evidence” that Palazzolo “had … inappropriate physical contact” with the girl in the act of removing her from the dance.
As for the other accusations against Palazzolo, Rickman found all to be valid, writing that the district had proven that Palazzolo was a bully, he created a hostile work environment, was disrespectful to students, and was “verbally” counseled on all of this by his principal, Alexander. Almost all of the evidence against him that was brought by a handful of teachers and a couple of counselors, was hearsay. Even Palazzolo’s critics admitted under oath that they had no solid evidence of their accusations, just a “feeling” that he had done something inappropriate. He also found that Palazzolo gave false information about two prior bouts with the law, both decades old. Both have been covered at length in this paper: One dealt with a conflict with his ex-wife over child support, which he settled and was fined $10. The second one was a $400 fine he was assessed by an Oklahoma administrative court because as the owner of a security firm, he was responsible for an employee who had let her security license expire. He paid the fine and believed both had been expunged from his record. He also testified that the application for employment that he filled out did not require an applicant to reveal misdemeanors, even though current ones do. He also failed to report that he had been terminated from employment from the General Services Administration some years ago following his report that some high administrators there were profiting from real estate deals. His firing was on appeal, he said. Johnson testified that the misdemeanors found on his record would not have kept him from being hired. And his testimony that he had undergone background and fingerprint checks more than eight times over the years, three by the Fort Worth district, and no criminal action showed up, was not disputed by the district.
While Rickman took the word of Alexander about Palazzolo, even though she provided not one shred of evidence to support her allegations, he also never mentioned that Alexander had resigned “in lieu of further action” after being found guilty of fraud by the district investigator Michael Menchaca. Menchaca wrote in his report that she had overseen the alteration of attendance records and admitted ordering a staff member not to report juniors, seniors, and “students of color” to the truancy courts in order to keep Heights completion rates up.
And an independent consultant from California, asked by the district to review the findings of the investigation into the allegations of misconduct at Arlington Heights found that the school under the leadership of Alexander was out of control.
Next stop for this case is the board which can vote to uphold the examiner’s report or reject it. If that happens, the case goes to the Commissioner of Education for a final decision. Then, it is on to district court, Smith said, where he has already filed a whistleblower lawsuit on Palazzolo’s behalf. But before that happens, a fuller report by this paper will be coming out, reviewing the testimony and the depositions. This story is far from over.
There are numerous stories about this case and the wrongdoings at AHHS that have been reported in this paper and on the blog since the August 11, 2010 “Powder Keg at Arlington Heights” first broke the story. You can find them by searching for Arlington Heights, Palazzolo, or Fort Worth ISD on this web site.