Threatening to rain on the parade of Walter Dansby, the hometown kid who made good by being officially hired as superintendent of the Fort Worth schools a week ago, are two controversial issues that got lost in the love fest surrounding Dansby’s historic contract as the first African American to be named to run the district. Both issues threaten to give the new super immediate grief — over and above that of inheriting from former superintendent Melody Johnson a district with a $50 million shortfall and the highest number of failing schools among the state’s major urban districts.
The first was the potential for a settlement of the case of former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo who was fired last year for what he and others claim was retaliation for his blowing the whistle on malfeasance at the venerable old school in 2009-2010. The charges were later proven by the district to be true, resulting in the forced resignation of three administrators and a coach. Still, the whistleblower wound up fired. His appeal of that firing made its way to the Commissioner of Education who ruled in his favor last year, ordering that he be reinstated with back pay and benefits and put back on the payroll. In the alternative it could have ordered a new hearing and paid him a year’s salary. (Once the administrative processes are complete, Palazzolo has a whistleblower lawsuit waiting to be filed in state district court.)
The board opted to reinstate him, without giving him a position. Then it appealed the commissioner’s decision to a state district court, where it lost in a precedent- setting ruling by District Judge Dana Womack in January. Womack ruled that the board had no “authority” to appeal a ruling by the commissioner. The board’s outside law firm immediately appealed that ruling.
However, after deliberating for more than an hour in closed session on what they hoped would be a final solution to the Palazzolo case, the board’s public vote left more questions than answers. The only clear thing it did was to order the attorneys to withdraw their last appeal. Cost was a factor, some board members said. (The case to date has reportedly cost the district around $400.000 in legal fees. Such charges do not include the $18,000 the district coughed up in an overpayment to a Texas Education Agency hearing examiner Rick Rickman who heard the Palazzolo appeal last year, ruled for the district and then handed it a fee for more than three times the amount allowed by state law. The commissioner wrote that the transaction had the taint of “bribery” on it and ruled in Palazzolo’s favor.)
Before the board came out of the back room to vote publicly on the latest Palazzolo issue, the district’s legal head Bertha Whatley was asked what the board was going to do. She said that it could “vote to reinstate him or offer him a year’s salary” under the terms of the commissioner’s order. No mention was made of termination. The whistleblower lawsuit would not be affected, she said. “It will still go forward.”
When the vote came, the board opted to pay him a year’s salary with no mention of termination. The motion stated the whistleblower lawsuit will proceed. So, was he terminated again? Trustee Ann Sutherland, who made the motion, said she did not see it that way. “The word termination is not in the motion,” she pointed out. Neither was an order for a new hearing.
Walsh Anderson has reportedly stated to the commissioner in earlier filings, that, according to his order, the board cannot fire Palazzolo again without a new hearing. WA attorneys could not be reached for comment.
Then what is his status? Smith, who was not there that night nor was his client, said later, “It is unclear whether the board intended to terminate Mr. Palazzolo. Clearly, the motion of the board indicated no such thing. … We will seek clarification.”
If the board wanted closure of this convoluted case, it seems to have been wrong again.
In the second issue to come to the board that night was the possible lawsuit and criminal charges threatened by a Dunbar High School parent for what she believes is the physical abuse of her son and other students by the school’s former principal and the district’s failure to notify her of the abuse and to fire the perpetrator. The principal, as first reported by this paper, admitted that he had been pinching certain athletes’ nipples for two years as a disciplinary tool. Her son was the first to report the abuse to the district in September. By October, a half-dozen more athletes had filed similar complaints. The principal is also accused of taking pictures of athletes in the field house after hours, with their shirts off while posing them in front of a black drop cloth.
District policy requires that parents be notified immediately of any allegation of misconduct by an employee against a student. It also prohibits adults touching students on “sensitive” parts of their bodies. Such touching can be construed as sexual abuse, according to the policy, and must be reported within 48 hours to Child Protective Services. The mother in this case (whose name is being withheld to protect the privacy of her son) said she was never notified by the district of the alleged abuse. She found out from her son, three months after he first reported the pinching to Dunbar’s security officers. One other mother has also complained that she was not notified, according to Dansby. CPS was not notified until three months after the allegations were first reported to Dunbar’s security officers. The agency opened an investigation, the results of which have not been released to the public.
In interviews for this paper’s series of stories on the pinching, Dansby told Fort Worth Weekly that the principal admitted to him that he had pinched the boys’ nipples and taken the pictures. He was removed as principal and kicked upstairs to a post in administration where he will stay until his contract runs out in August. His $100,000 plus salary stays the same. Dansby said he didn’t fire him in order to avoid a lawsuit.
The mother, who will not be identified to protect the privacy of her son, told her story to the Weekly in January. However, when she tried to address the board about it in public last Tuesday, interim president Juan Rangel asked her to stop and finish her presentation to the board in closed session. He told the Weekly it was because it concerned a personnel issue that could not be aired in public.
Even though the board is bound by law not to reveal what is discussed in closed session, the mother is not held to the same restriction. After the session, she said she was “highly dissatisfied” with Dansby’s response. She said he told her that the principal had denied the accusations. “When I challenged him stating that he had been quoted in news reports as saying that the principal admitted to the charges, he denied telling the media any such thing,” she said
However, Dansby told the Weeklyin two separate interviews that the principal admitted to him that he had pinched the students on their nipples and had taken the pictures. Dansby said then that he also admitted his involvement with the boys to Michael Menchaca, the head of the district’s office of professional development and the chief investigator of allegations of wrongdoing by district personnel. Neither Dansby nor Menchaca have responded to calls and emails requesting comments and clarification for this story. No action was taken by the board on the mother’s request that the principal be fired, that his record reflect his admissions and that he not be allowed to work around children again.
“I do not intend to go away,” the mother said, stating that her next step is to file charges against the principal with the Tarrant County District Attorney. “I want a really independent investigation of this,” she said. “And one that won’t be swept under the rug as this one has been.”
Welcome to the superintendent’s world, Mr. Dansby.