On the advice of its attorneys from the Houston law firm of Walsh Anderson, Fort Worth school trustees on Tuesday night voted 6-2 to appeal in district court the orders of the Commissioner of Education to reinstate former Arlington Heights assistant principal and whistleblower Joe Palazzolo and provide him with a new hearing. The case has been on going for a year and has cost the district in the neighborhood of $300,000 in lawyer’s fees to fight it. So far it has lost three rounds.
Commissioner Robert Scott has already issued two orders to the board reversing Palazzolo’s firing and remanding the case to the board to hold a new hearing. And weeks ago the Texas Workforce Commission ruled in Palazzolo’s favor granting him unemplolyment benefits after finding that the district did not provide proof that the firing was justified.
The Scott decision was based on illegal actions by the district and a Texas Education Agency hearing examiner who recommended in February that the firing be upheld. Rick Rickman, a Dallas lawyer, was paid more than $26,000 by the administration of former superintendent Melody Johnson to hear the case when state law puts a cap on such compensation at $8,000. The commissioner’s orders stated that paying Rickman $18,000 over the legal limit held the taint of bribery even if it did not exist. He wrote that Palazzolo’s appeal “is hereby granted in that there was a procedural irregularity which was likely to have led to an erroneous decision.” The district appealed that decision only to have the commissioner uphold his original order with even stronger language.
Trustee Ann Sutherland took strong exception to the board’s action (she and trustee Carlos Vasquez voted against it) accusing board president Ray Dickerson and his board majority of “ throwing the dice again on the Palazzolo case and using unlimited tax dollars to do so.” She believes the outcome will be the same, that is that Palazzolo will have to be reinstated and a new hearing called. She, Vasquez and trustee Juan Rangel (who was absent the night of the vote) argue that it is time to stop the bleeding of taxpayer dollars on the Palazzolo controversy. “He should have never been fired in the first place,” Rangel said in an earlier interview. “This district needs to make him whole.”
(Palazzolo was fired after reporting dirty work afoot at Arlington Heights High School in the spring of 2010; his allegations and those of at least a dozen teachers of widespread attendance fraud, sexual harassment, and the disparate treatment of minority students, among other misdeeds, were largely upheld by an internal district investigation. After a year of administrative procedures, Palazzolo appealed his firing to the Commissioner of Education and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the district.)
New schools superintendent Walter Dansby also has reservations about the case.
“I am not happy with the way this case has been handled,” he told Fort Worth Weekly in a phone interview the day after the vote. “I am still trying to find out what is fact and what is fiction,” he said.
Dansby pointed out that having just been appointed interim superintendent in June, he is having to “catch up on a year” in which he had no involvement in the highly charged case. What he has found out so far has left him with serious concerns, he said. “I don’t like some of the tactics used as we went forward with it, or the way the district went through the whole process.”
As to the board’s vote, he said that the timeline in the case drove the board action. Under the law, enforcement of the commissioner’s order had to be taken by the end of July. Appealing delayed that decision. Dansby said he hopes to use the time to get the parties to the table, “resolve everything and settle this in a global solution that is fair to everyone.” In doing so, the district would not have to go through with the appeal and the whistleblower lawsuit could be prevented.
Sutherland pointed out that the district’s case in the whistleblower suit is weak. “It turns on the fact that Mr. Palazzolo allegedly falsified his job application, but, get this, no one can find the application.”
Palazzolo, who has notified the district that he will not settle for less than a full reinstatement, with back pay and benefits, lawyer’s fees, and a long-term contract, said that if those demands cannot be met, he is prepared to go to trial on his whistleblower lawsuit. “I reported wrongdoing, and was fired for it. I expect to be made whole,” he said
The district is facing more legal fees due to the TWC decision. Until he found work teaching at a state prison, Palazzolo collected a little more than $3,000 in benefits. The board, also on the advice of its attorneys, has appealed that as well in what Sutherland has called “a side bet.” A hearing is set this week for the case to be heard. The legal costs will probably outstrip any compensation he received, even if the district wins, which is “unlikely,” Sutherland said.
On Wednesday, Palazzolo’s attorney, Jason Smith, filed a motion with the commissioner asking that his order to the board be enforced. The district will have to respond. More legal fees, Sutherland said.
In other whistleblower business before the board, it voted to send the case of Aracely Chavez to mediation. Chavez, a highly paid specialist in the technology department, was fired two years ago after she reported serious deficiencies in the district’s new payroll computer software program bought from Tyler Technologies. Her warnings proved to be right. After the program was unrolled at the insistence of former superintendent Johnson, the district faced months of payroll problems so severe that more than 2,000 employees wound up being overpaid to the tune of $1.5 million — or worse, not paid at all. Lawsuits over the failure of the program are ongoing.
Chavez has also given the board her demands that include full reinstatement, back pay and benefits, and lawyer’s fees. She too said that she is prepared to follow through with a whistleblower suit if the district fails to meet her demands.