A look of excited relief washed over Joe Palazzolo’s face as he stood in the hallway of the Wise County courthouse. His attorney had just informed him that Fort Worth school district lawyers had tentatively agreed to a settlement agreement in his whistleblower case.
As he shared hugs and handshakes with his former co-workers at Arlington Heights High School, who were there to testify on his behalf, he told reporters that he was ready to move on with his life and career. On that June morning, it looked as though he was on his way to putting the long struggle behind him.
The settlement appeared to give Palazzolo everything he wanted: $300,000 in damages, retirement credits for the time he’d missed, and a job as an administrator for the district.
The only thing that stood in the way of the former assistant principal at Heights resuming his career was the school board’s approval of the settlement.
“When I thought we had reached a resolution at the courthouse, I was glad for my family that this three-year ordeal seemed at an end.” Palazzolo said. “I miss working with the people I had worked with at Heights. I have a lot of friends in Fort Worth ISD, and I was anxious to get back to my career and continue to make a positive difference in the lives of kids.”
Now that morning in Decatur seems like a lifetime ago to Palazzolo. The school board demanded changes that Palazzolo would not agree to. And today his case is right back where it started. The embattled whistleblower is once again waiting for his day in court.
His saga has taken more left turns than a NASCAR race. The drama started in 2010 when Palazzolo, acting in his role as the school’s diversity program officer, went to administrators with teacher complaints about attendance fraud, disparate treatment of minority students, misappropriation of funds, and the inappropriate behavior of some faculty members. When the administrators chose to cover up the wrongdoings instead of acting on them, he said, he took his grievances to the Texas Education Agency.
Eventually an internal investigation by the district found the majority of Palazzolo’s complaints to be accurate. Additionally, a TEA auditor found that during a six-week period in 2009 the school had reported numerous students present in their classrooms when in fact they were not and fined the district almost $18,000.
Based on the information Palazzolo produced, three administrators and one coach at Heights were pressured into retiring or resigning. But only one person from Heights was fired: Palazzolo.
For blowing the whistle while doing a job the district created for him specifically to report wrongdoing, Palazzolo was punished. He has been demoted, transferred twice, put on administrative leave, then fired, reinstated, fired again, and since then has yo-yoed in and out of courthouses and hearing rooms. The latest turn in the soap opera involves leaked records, busted agreements, and an inevitable return to court.
Attorneys for the district have said in court that Palazzolo was fired for, among other things, lying, bullying, covering up misdeeds, and violating district policies.
If the trial goes forward as now seems likely, the evidence presented may raise questions about whether school district higher-ups themselves engaged in many of those same activities. Palazzolo and his attorney charge that district officials have lied about Palazzolo, bullied and threatened his potential witnesses, and repeatedly made decisions aimed at protecting themselves rather than doing the right thing.
That’s why many Palazzolo supporters were torn at the idea that his case was going to be settled without a trial. They want Palazzolo to get what is due him, but they also want their day in court. For them, this trial represents the best shot at getting out to the public the details of what they see as widespread, deeply entrenched problems at the school district: intimidation, cronyism, and corruption.
One quote from an April deposition of school board president Judy Needham exemplifies the kind of testimony that the district’s critics want to see come out.
Palazzolo attorney Jason Smith had asked Needham about reports that Palazzolo’s former boss at Arlington Heights had recommended him for a promotion to another campus. Why recommend a promotion for someone she disliked?
The boss just wanted Palazzolo out of the building, Needham told Smith. “That’s the way things are done around here.”
In Decatur, the district’s lawyers had told Palazzolo and Smith that they had a settlement after consulting on the phone with Needham and Superintendent Walter Dansby. But six days later, the school board met in executive session and, in effect, blew up the agreement, deciding to ask for changes that Palazzolo has rejected.
A few days after the meeting, an audio recording of that closed session was inexplicably posted on the district’s website. It revealed that during the meeting, the trustees discussed placing Palazzolo in a “warehouse” job, away from children. On the recording, attorneys for the district claimed that Smith had agreed to that kind of job for his client. Smith said later that he would never agree to any provision that kept Palazzolo away from children.
According to board trustee Ann Sutherland, the version of the recording posted online is incomplete.
“A significant part of the deliberation was omitted,” she said.
Her allegation has led some to believe that the audio leak was not an accident. The recording was taken down, but not before it was posted on YouTube.
Palazzolo said he is done negotiating. Listening to the leaked recording was the last straw.
“The release of the audio caused me to cease any further negotiations, with the intent of presenting the audio to the judge,” he said. “When I heard Walter Dansby laughingly say that he’d ‘rather lose in court’ [than put Palazzolo in a job dealing with students], something he had clearly never said before, I instructed my attorney to grant his wish and immediately file for a new trial. That was June 24.”
In the Decatur courthouse on June 11, Smith made his opening remarks. Then the school district lawyer Thomas Brandt did the same.
And that’s all the Wise County jury ever heard. Instead of hearing testimony the next day, jurors cooled their heels while attorneys for the two sides hammered out the settlement. The agreement apparently reached, the jurors were dismissed.
The accounts of what was discussed in that meeting vary. What is certain is that Palazzolo signed a standard two-year administrators’ contract and an agreement with his new job description listed as “educational logistics coordinator.”
On the recording of the executive session, Brandt said that the two sides also had a verbal agreement about the type of job Palazzolo would be given.
“We had an oral representation about what we’d agreed upon,” he said. “One of them was that we said he is not going to be working with children, he’ll be in a warehouse. That was agreed to [by Palazzolo’s lawyer Jason Smith].”
Valerie Carrillo, chief legal counsel for the district, supported Brandt’s assertion.
“When we were in the judge’s chambers, I told Mr. Smith that the plaintiff would not be allowed to work with students, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, he’ll go work in a warehouse or something,’ ” she said. “Of course when I put it in writing … he didn’t want that language in there. He didn’t feel it necessary.”
On the audio, various trustees and Dansby voiced their intention to place Palazzolo in a job far away from students.
“I would rather lose in court than allow him around children,” Dansby said.
There was never any allegation made public or shared with Palazzolo about any substantive misconduct with students. In the meeting, trustees and lawyers even discussed softening the language of “keeping him away from children,” so as not to suggest inappropriate behavior. It is still unclear why district officials wanted Palazzolo away from students.
On the recording, the lawyers repeatedly stated that Smith agreed that his client would work in a “warehouse job” and that he changed the deal after the agreement was signed.
Smith denied that he or his client ever agreed to such a provision, citing Brandt’s argument in the trial, in which he admitted there was never any misconduct by Palazzolo involving students.
“It sounds like the district wants to change the deal,” he said. “Mr. Palazzolo is willing to honor his word. It is time for the district to set a good example to the children it educates and live up to its word.”
Had Palazzolo agreed to work the “warehouse” job, he might have lost his teaching certificate, according to Chapter 21 of the education code, which mandates teachers and administrators attend continuing education classes. As a non-teaching employee, Palazzolo would have been ineligible for those classes, and the district could have voided his contract at any time.
On the audio, trustee T.A. Sims worried aloud that Palazzolo would be a “lifelong employee” and tough to get rid of.
Brandt also revealed that the district had offered Palazzolo a larger settlement. “He turned down $500,000 in favor of $300,000 and two years [contract],” he said. “[The contract] is worth more to him because it’s harder to get rid of him.”
Someone else in the room (the identity of speakers is not always clear) concluded that if Palazzolo were to ever be terminated or his contract not renewed, another lawsuit would be certain.
“There is no doubt that if there is ever reason to not renew his contract for cause, he will sue,” the man said. “That’s a foregone conclusion.”
Brandt called the district’s version a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal and urged the board to “continue the brinksmanship and see if they flinch first.”
The board trustees approved an amended version of the settlement but wouldn’t tell reporters what those amendments were. Then the audiotape went up on the website.