“This case is bigger than Joseph Palazzolo in that the Fort Worth ISD is going to have to decide if it wants to allow altering student attendance records to justify state funding and performance scores, and whether white West Side kids are going to be disciplined just like minorities.”
That statement was made by attorney Jason Smith after he filed a second whistleblower lawsuit in the 271st district court in Wise County on Palazzolo’s behalf on July 6.
This filing is the result of an action taken by the board on February 14 in which Palazzolo claims he was fired — for a second time —without due process in retaliation for his 2010 report to the district’s office of professional standards of a number of illegalities by a handful of the school’s officers, including intentional falsification of student attendance records and discrimination against minority students in disciplinary procedures.
Earlier this year, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott upheld Palazzolo’s appeal of his first firing based on an illegal payment of more than $27,000 by the district to Texas Education Agency hearing examiner Rick Rickman, who heard Palazzolo’s appeal at the district level in February and upheld the firing. According to state law, Rickman was not allowed to be paid more than $8,000 for his services. Scott compared the overpayment to a “bribe.”
He ordered the district to reinstate Palazzolo, paying him back pay and benefits, and to order a new hearing. In the alternative he wrote, the district could pay him a year’s salary. The board, on the advice of its outside attorneys, opted to reinstate him. He was put back on the payroll for nine months, but was never assigned a position even though he had offered to take whatever position the district had for him, as long as it was equivalent to his former job. A new hearing was never called. The board then appealed the commissioner’s order. It lost that appeal and on Feb. 14, the board voted to drop any further appeals and to pay Palazzolo the year’s salary. The motion, made by Ann Sutherland was simply that. Later, Palazzolo was notified that he was not only being paid his year’s salary, but that he was getting his “last paycheck” from the district via a letter from a district administrator, Sammy Monge. When asked if he had in fact been fired, Sutherland said only, “The word ‘termination’ was not in the motion” that she made. She has refused to comment further.
Smith argues that the board could not “go back” after reinstating Palazzolo in the first instance and take the second option later down the road. Now the issue is once again in court.
“I wish everyone could step back a bit and see the bigger picture. … It is going to be a big cost to [Palazzolo] and an even bigger cost to the district,” said Larry Shaw head of the United Educators Association and a long-time supporter of Palazzolo. “But it looks like it will have to be settled in court because each side is so set in its ways. … The board majority does not want him back,” Shaw said, “and Joe will not settle unless he gets his job back.” Shaw thinks that Superintendent Walter Dansby would rehire Palazzolo, “but he doesn’t have the votes on the board.” Dansby has refused to speak to the Weekly about the Palazzolo case because of the litigation. Shaw also said that Palazzolo is correct when he says his future in education has been poisoned by the district’s character assassination of him. “In today’s climate, he’s probably not going to be hired by anyone” unless he’s fully vindicated, Shaw said. “And that’s a shame, because he is a really an excellent administrator and did great things for the ninth grade team at Heights…Those teachers supported him.”
The 56-year-old Palazzolo has been fighting for two years to regain his career and his reputation after he was demoted, transferred twice, put on administrative leave, then fired months after filing the allegations against the Heights adminisrators. Those allegations were supported by statements from more than a dozen teachers who were eyewitnesses to the events they described or victims of sexual harassment.
The most serious illegality, falsifying attendance records — which resulted in “artificially inflating school achievement and wrongly retaining state funds based on attendance,” according to the petition— was upheld by the district’s own internal investigation and is a state jail felony under the Texas Penal Code’s prohibition on tampering with government records. It is also a violation of district policy*
Three administrators, including the principal, an assistant principal, an assistant superintendent, and the girls’ athletic director at the school were forced to resign “in lieu of further action.” Even though two of them admitted to violating the law regarding falsification of government documents, none were prosecuted. They left with their retirement intact. Only the athletic director is listed by the district as not eligible for “rehire.”
Further, the filing stated that Palazzolo “also reported inappropriate sexual relationships by school officials … misuse of booster club funds … [and] “discriminatory discipline of minority students” that included “white students not being disciplined for engaging in conduct for which minority students were disciplined,”
The allegations became facts when a district internal investigation found the majority of them to be true. In addition, a Texas Education Agency auditor found that during a six-week period in 2009 the school had reported numerous kids “present” in their classrooms when in fact they were not and fined the district almost $18,000, the petition states.
Yet, the whistleblower was the only person fired even though none of the charges were made against him. .
Palazzolo’s petition to the court suggests the reason: “Most reports concerned school officials who were cronies of FWISD Trustee Judy Needham,” attorney Smith wrote. Heights, almost 100 years old and home to many of Fort Worth’s wealthiest and most influential families, is in her district. She has been its representative on the board for almost 16 years. The petition also claims that the white students who were not disciplined for the same misconduct that minorities were punished for came from “families with personal ties to … Needham.”
The most recent filing, using emails that were made part of the public record, alleges that Needham was made aware of the illegalities before they were reported by Palazzolo and did nothing other than attempt to keep the scandal under wraps. The emails filed with the court also show her “hostility” toward Palazzolo as well as this reporter who first broke the story in August 2010. On July 30, during Fort Worth Weekly’s investigation of the allegations in which Needham was asked for a time-line on when she was first made aware of the wrongdoings at Heights, Needham wrote to then Superintendent Melody Johnson, “Can you believe this evil woman and Joe?” Johnson replied simply, “Call me.”
In later testimony during a hearing on his case, Johnson admitted that the email from Needham was “inappropriate” and that she told Needham as much when she called her for advice.
“The allegations are total fabricated lies,” Needham wrote in an email response to the Weekly.
Trustee Carlos Vasquez said in an email that the board has “worked hard to settle all lawsuits caused by the previous adminstration … all but Palazzolo’s.” He said he was “disappointed” that the former principal has decided to file another lawsuit stating that he believed the action taken on Feb. 14 was legal. “The TEA gave us that option,” he said. Still, he added.”I am not a lawyer, but I have been very unhappy with the representation the district has received from our lawyers, who in my experience have committed many serious mistakes and the amount of money we have continued to spend on this case is unaccetable.” And while stating that “many on the board do not want to see him returned, I still believe that Palazzolo was wronged and that he should not have been fired by Dr. Johnson. I begged the board …not to do so and predicted it would cost us millions of dollars if we did.” He went on, “Mr. Palazzolo was wronged by our district and by Dr. Johnson, but Mr. Dansby and most of us on this board want this resolved, but he has to be reasonable in his demands.”
This is Palazzolo’s second whistleblower lawsuit filed in Wise County. The first one is scheduled to go to trial in November.
In a statement to the Weekly, Palazzolo said “I blew the whistle [on things from falsification of attendance records to “double standards” in discipline to thousands of dollars of booster club funds being misappropriated] and I got fired. I loved being an administrator who created a safe environment for all students and staff where each one knew they would be treated fairly. And still I was fired.” In fact, evaluations filed with the lawsuit, show that the principal consistently evaluated him with “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.” She praised him for his “exceptional leadership” with ninth graders and their teachers. Shortly before he reported on the wrongdoings, he was recommended by the principal for a promotion to principal at Metro Opportunity High School, a school for at-risk students, because, his principal wrote, “He is a strong disciplinarian.”
The administration received almost 100 emails from Palazzolo’s colleagues praising his leadership abilities, his compassionate work with minorities and asking that he not be terminated. One said, “He is the best thing that has ever happened for Arlington Heights.”
Yet none of those emails or the positive evaluations were ever given to the board before it voted 6-3 to uphold his first firing. They were withheld by former assistant superintendent Sylvia Reyna who conducted the Palazzolo investigation. (She resigned last week for a better paying job in Dallas.) Johnson admitted during the TEA hearing that the evaluations and emails were not made available to the board. She did not give a reason.
Ironically, the initial reason for firing Palazzolo, that he lied on his application about past “criminal” violations was proven to be false — but not before Palazzolo had to spend more of his own money on lawyer fees in Oklahoma. Reyna and Johnson reported to board members and to Shaw that there were felony convictions against Palazzolo in that state that dated back 15 and 20 years — even though none showed up on his numerous background checks, as admitted to by the district’s legal head, Bertha Whatley. The reason, as it turned out, was that the “felonies” were not felonies at all, but were two legal matters concerning a dispute with an ex-wife over child support that he settled and paid and an expired security license. The child support issue was described by the court, according to documents an Oklahoma lawyer forwarded to Palazzolo, as a “petty offense.” The second was a ticket he received as the owner of a security firm because one of his employees had let her license run out. It was also paid. That one, described by his lawyer as no more than a traffic ticket, was expunged from his record.
Still, the drumbeat to fire him marches on.
To date, the outside legal costs for fighting the Palazzolo case exceed $400,000.
“I believe taxpayers need to see how Fort Worth ISD spends its money on personal vendettas and patronage,” he said. “This is money that is supposed to be spent on educating our children.”
*According to Texas Penal Code Section 37.10 Tampering with Governmental Record Section (a) A person commits an offense if he:
1. knowingly makes a false entry in, or false alteration of, a governmental record;2. makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record;3. makes, presents, or uses a governmental record with knowledge of its falsity:
Section (d) , an offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor unless the actor’s intent is to defraud or harm another, in which event the offense is a state jail felony.Section (d)(2) An offense under this section is a felony of the third degree if it is shown on the trial of the offense that the governmental record is a public school record, report, or assessment instrument required under Chapter 39, Education Code ( Public School System Accountability)
From the Fort Worth ISD employee handbook:
Any applicant or employee who knowingly falsifies, misrepresents, changes, alters, or revises any certification, transcript, diploma, any school district official document, or other instrument shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment