On Saturday, former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal and whistleblower Joe Palazzolo received a letter from the Texas Education Agency director of field audits, Dorinda Cavazos Wheeless, that “was music to my ears,” he said.
“The Division of Financial Audits has reviewed the documentation submitted by the Fort Worth Independent School District addressing your allegations that attendance may have been improperly changed at the district’s Arlington Heights High School campus. This review disclosed that the district erroneously over-reported days of attendance and we have made adjustments to the district’s funding,” Wheeless wrote.
The finding means the district will get fewer funds this year for the school’s operation. It also means that Palazzolo’s accusations of attendance irregularities at the school last year were vindicated, he said. Palazzolo said he was thanked by a TEA spokesperson for bringing the issue to their attention. “I was told that [TEA] has heard of other similar issues at other schools in the district but that they cannot look into them without someone filing a formal complaint.”
The beleaguered former administrator was fired last year after reporting numerous allegations of misconduct at Heights including an allegation that the school’s principal and several of her staff had engaged in falsification of attendance records that allowed at least 21 students to graduate who otherwise would not have due to chronic truancies. On August 6, Palazzolo took his allegations to the TEA by filing a formal complaint accusing the district of attendance fraud. A subsequent investigation by the district upheld his and other AHHS teachers allegations including a finding that the principal had actively engaged in fraud by ordering one of her staffers not to report truancy cases against “seniors, juniors and students of color” in order to keep the school’s completion rate high. The principal, Neta Alexander, was allowed to resign with “no further action” and to draw her full salary until July of this year.
Trustees Carlos Vasquez and Ann Sutherland said that the TEA report is another setback for the leadership of Superintendent Melody Johnson.
“It bothers me not only that there is a discrepancy in our reporting,” Sutherland said, “but that our staff investigated the allegations and found none. I am wondering whether this also involves students graduating without completing all requirements.”
After Vasquez was told of the TEA letter by a reporter, he wrote to Johnson, “Please inform us if this is accurate as soon as possible. I am tired of finding out about school district matters from reporters or newspapers.” Within minutes she wrote to her board that she had “received the official notification from TEA concerning this matter today, May 2.” She said that the district was already investigating attendance reporting at Heights when Palazzolo made his complaint.
“A majority of the discrepancies identified by auditors involved the fact we could not locate documentation for 255 [Heights] students who were moved to the gym, cafeteria or auditorium [during TAKS testing ] in order to create an environment more conducive to testing. Students were moved from their normal classrooms as is common during testing. … However, the documentation as to exactly where they were could not be produced… …The [TEA] corrective action plan calls for all students moved to large areas during TAKS testing to sign in and be accounted for by teachers,” she wrote.
However, one teacher pointed out that students have always been required to check into their homerooms on test days to have their attendance counted before being moved to other testing sites.
Johnson did not return requests for comment from Fort Worth Weekly.
Vasquez said that Johnson’s actions in the case of Arlington Heights and the Palazzolo case throw serious doubts on her ability to continue to lead the district and certainly do not justify her high salary that carries with it a “pay for performance” annual bonus of $45,185. “She is one of the highest paid superintendents in the state, probably the nation, and she continues to hide things from this board, like this TEA investigation. We were never told that this was going on.” She makes $328,900 in base pay, he said, with a $7,200 car allowance plus $4,474 yearly for “Fortis reimbursement,” according to a spreadsheet with her pay that was provided to Vasquez. He thinks the Fortis pay is an insurance policy, but when he asked her about the Fortis money, he said she replied by email that she wasn’t quite sure what it was for. Total pay: $385,759.
Vasquez said he is outraged at the bonus claiming that it was approved by former board members when she was hired and has been routinely given ever since. “I would like to see her give that up,” he said. “It would be enough to save two teacher’s aides’ jobs.”
Other critics of Johnson have weighed in on this issue as well. “We are very pleased with the TEA’s confirmation of the ‘attendance scandal’ at Arlington Heights, however we are still concerned with how Superintendent Melody Johnson continues to engage in official oppression of the facts within the district,” said the Rev. Kyev Tatum, President of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“The question is, what else has erroneously been reported by this administration? We are calling on the Fort Worth ISD Board of Trustees to require a district wide audit for the last three years of attendance, Tatum said, adding that he is filing a complaint with TEA.
The Weekly first reported this story on August 11, 2010 with numerous follow-up stories and blogs. Palzzolo’s appeal of his firing is now before the Texas Commissioner of Education. Following a ruling from the commissioner, the next stop is state district court where Palazzolo filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the district late last year.