Joe Palazzolo, the embattled whistleblower and former assistant principal at Arlington Heights High School won another round in his appeal to the Commissioner of Education to get his old job back and to overturn his firing by former Fort Worth schools superintendent Melody Johnson last year. Palazzolo was fired after he and a dozen other employees of the school reported a litany of wrongdoings by adminstrators at the high school, including the principal, most of which were upheld by a district investigation.
Today, July 5, Commissioner Robert Scott ordered Palazzolo reinstated with back pay and employment benefits until such time as a new hearing can be set. Or, in the alternative, the district must pay Palazzolo “one year’s salary” as well as back pay and benefits, starting from the date on which he would have been reinstated.
That decision will be made by a board now working with a new superintendent, Walter Dansby. Johnson resigned unexpectedly last month after serving as superintendent here for nearly six years. Dansby, a 37-year veteran of the district, was chosen by the board to assume the role of interim superintendent while it searches for a permanent one. When Palazzolo was fired last year, the board was split 6-3 in favor of terminating him. Dansby deferred comment until he has had a chance to confer with his board, he said.
Palazzolo’s original appeal asked that he be reinstated to his old job with back pay. Scott’s first ruling did not specifically address “reinstatement” allowing the district to argue that it did not have to give him his job back or pay him back wages even though the commissioner ruled specifically that Palazzolo’s appeal of his firing had been “upheld.”
Palazzolo’s attorney Jason Smith appealed to the commissioner for a clarification of the ruling — and this afternoon he got just that.
In a 16-page decision that clarified and upheld Scott’s first order handed down on May 13 that said the “petitioner’s appeal … is hereby granted in that there was a procedural irregularity which was likely to have led to an erroneous decision,” Scott wrote, “The Commissioner’s decision in this case failed to fully set forth the options upon reversal and remand” under the Texas Education Code. He then made his decision clear: “There may have been some confusion about the Commissioner’s action because … the Order grants petitioner’s appeal and remands the case. An argument might be made that the board’s decision to terminate Petitioner’s contract was not reversed but just remanded. (Emphasis added.)
“To clarify the Commissioner’s actions,” he wrote, “the Order now provides this case is reversed and remanded.” (Emphasis added.) A reversal in legalese means the original decision by a lower court (the hearing examiner) is wiped out by the appeals court (the commissioner.)
The “procedural irregularity” that overturned the board’s and Johnson’s termination of Palazzolo was the decision by the board to overpay the hearing examiner in his original case by more than $18,000. State education law caps payments to public education hearing examiners at $8,000. In the Palazzolo case, the examiner, Rick Rickman, a lawyer from Dallas, sent the district a bill for more than $26,000, which it paid. Scott ruled that such an overpayment could reasonably be seen as a temptation to “tip the scales of justice” in favor of the district. Therefore, he wrote, the additional compensation was “likely to lead to an erroneous decision.”
In the latest ruling, the commissioner added the specter of an even more ominous reading of compensation that exceeds the law: “While it is possible that an independent hearing examiner could seek more payment than he is lawfully entitled to in return for a decision that favors the district, such an action is called bribery.”
“It’s embarrassing,” Smith said, “that the last administration fired a whistleblower instead of fixing the problems at Arlington Heights High School so the kids there could get an education. …I hope the new adminstration will resolve this quickly so that the district can recover from this sad episode.”
“The commissioner’s decision is consistent with the original ruling and I look forward to being reinstated,” Palazzolo said.