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Sutherland: “It is time this board requires our superintendent and board president to follow this rule.” Lee Chastain
Sutherland: “It is time this board requires our superintendent and board president to follow this rule.” Lee Chastain

Embattled Fort Worth school board trustee Ann Sutherland is no stranger to conflict with school district officials.

Two years ago she was censured for asking too many questions. Last year she was threatened by the district’s lawyer while testifying on behalf of whistleblower Joe Palazzolo after she said, among other things, that she thought there was widespread bullying of staff throughout the district. She was even accused by some board members of conspiring against the district during the trial. And in 2013, then-Superintendent Walter Dansby and then-board president Judy Needham refused to allow some of Sutherland’s issues to be placed on the board agenda, which led to a public showdown.

The more things change with the school district, the more they stay the same. Though Dansby is gone and Needham is no longer the board’s president, their replacements — Pat Linares and Norman Robbins, respectively — are continuing the district’s tradition of ostracizing Sutherland. They’ve refused to allow two items on the agenda that Sutherland thinks are important.

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Back in 2013, Sutherland was beating the drum against raises given to district front-office employees. Now she’s fighting what are called short-cycle assessment tests, a series of exams given every three weeks, designed to prepare students for the STAAR standardized test.

She believes that the practice violates state law, is ineffective, and creates a bureaucratic nightmare for teachers. Sutherland wants the board to suspend the tests until some of the kinks are worked out and then reconsider whether to continue the practice.

She’s also upset about a staffer who complained to district officials about being bullied and allegedly was then demoted with a cut in pay for reporting the mistreatment. District policy allows for an employee to have a grievance hearing before the board. Sutherland wouldn’t name the employee for fear of further retaliation.

The refusal by Robbins and Linares to put her items on the agenda violates board policy, Sutherland said.

“This is a fundamental part of our democracy,” she said. Having elected officials on the school board “is a mechanism to make sure that the people who vote for people like me are heard. It’s the only way they can be heard formally.”

A district spokesperson said Linares was in meetings and could not respond to Fort Worth Weekly in time for this edition. Robbins did not respond to multiple e-mails requesting comment.

Board policy states that it is the superintendent’s job to place items on the agenda for the meeting and that any trustee can request that a subject be included. “The superintendent shall include on the preliminary agenda of the meeting all trustee-requested topics that have been timely submitted,” the policy also says.

It is then the president’s job to authorize the agenda. The board policy specifically states that the president does not have the authority to remove a trustee’s agenda item without that board member’s permission.

“It is time this board requires our superintendent and board president to follow this rule,” Sutherland said.

She said she’s received many complaints from parents and teachers about short-cycle testing.

Before adopting the three-week testing cycle in August, the district administered tests every nine weeks. The short-cycle tests are designed to be no more than 10 questions and take a maximum of 30 minutes. The rationale behind the tests is that they quickly give feedback so teachers can adjust lessons to address their students’ weaknesses. The system requires teachers to gather data after each test and fill out lengthy reports.

Steven Poole, managing director of the United Educators Association, told the board during its August meeting that the UEA would not support short-cycle tests. He called the tests a “paperwork treadmill” for teachers.

“Now what was an every-nine-week paper chase will become an every-three-week paper chase,” he said. “When will they have the time to implement the strategies they know will help their students the best, when they’re having to fill out 12 to 15 to 18 pages’ worth of data just to go to a meeting with their principal?

“This is not helping the teachers in the least,” he said.

A parent of two children at Bruce Shulkey Elementary School wrote a letter to Sutherland about the tests, which she posted on her blog.

The concerned father called the test’s questions poorly written and said they seemed intent on tricking the students, as opposed to testing their grasp of the subject. He said the instructions for the questions wAere ambiguous and the answer choices so close in meaning as to be nearly indistinguishable. He also pointed out several grammatical errors.

“My daughter comes home discouraged by a low score,” he wrote. “We go over the exam with her and have trouble telling her how she could have done better.

“My children are not below-average students struggling with routine tasks,” he said. “They were both identified in kindergarten as gifted and talented. They have two parents who care for them and participate in their education. Yet they struggle with this nonsense prepared by the district. Many students in our city do not have these advantages. If my children are struggling, how do you expect less-equipped students to succeed?”

Sutherland also worries that the frequency of testing violates state law, which bans school districts from spending too many class days on tests to prepare for the standardized exams.

She has asked that staffers research the legality of the tests but said she has so far been ignored.

Sutherland has also been trying to get a grievance hearing for the employee she believes experienced retaliation after reporting bullying. Sutherland declined to identify the staffer but cited the situation as another example of the school district’s habit of using fear, intimidation, and threats of retaliation to keep its employees in line.

She fears that the two issues she’s trying to get on the agenda will be swept under the rug the same way the district ignored her past requests.

In 2013 Sutherland was outraged by more than 100 raises given to central-office staff, at a time when more than 300 teachers were being laid off. She repeatedly asked the board to discuss the issue, but Dansby and Needham refused to put the item on the agenda.

Sutherland said the feeling of screaming in a vacuum is all too familiar.

“I never would have voted for Dr. Linares to be our superintendent if I thought she would continue the practice began by Dansby of ignoring these requests,” Sutherland said.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I just read the FWISD response as reported on the BLOTCH. Nothing could better illustrate how out of touch FWISD Board President Norm Robbins is with reality. He IS part of the problem. It should be noted he became Board President AFTER his infamous testimony at the Palazzolo trial. Was it a reward? The Assistant Principal referred to in this story, who was transferred and demoted by Dansby, and whose grievance ROBBINS refused to put on the agenda has now resigned. Lockheed would not tolerate the environment Robbins has created at FWISD. Taxpayers should not either.

  2. What does Lockheed have to do with this story? Sorry to disappoint, but yes, Lockheed would approve. After all it IS union busting at it’s finest. And that is something Lockheed does itself. In fact they train managers at other companies how to union bust.

    • So is that in some way supposed to justify what he is doing to our Schools, Teachers, and Kids? We have no union in Texas to bust. Robbins is just plain unethical and dishonest in his dealings. He lied under oath and continues to do so in the article. If it were happening at Lockheed, I would think as a government contractor, we would have many avenues to take. Here we do not. Even the Weekly (until now) has refused to cover dozens of incidents in the past five months. We need help exposing what is going on in FWISD. There is more corruption in this Board under Robbins, Needham and Jackson than meets the eye. Check out http://ciafwisd.blogspot.com/2015/01/fwisd-we-have-bond-problem-part-2.html

      • Great response, teacher. However while Robbins may be unethical and dishonest, I believe “incompetence” is all too often rewarded at FWISD especially in administration. Has anyone thought about banding together to launch a campaign to get TEA back here by writing to the IG on these matters of illegal testing and failure to follow board rules? Not to mention wasting taxpayer dollars with the Palazzolo appeal. How long do we have to wait for school board elections?

  3. Nice to see the Weekly get back to reporting on the district. However there is so much more you could do by interviewing those teachers that will talk about the problems with bullying they have had, the problems that we’ve all had with the SCA’s, and all of the unnecessary paperwork that goes along with it none of which helps anyone in the classroom. As was reported, we’ve all seen questions that are poorly written, answer sets that don’t contain a correct answer, and specialists that are so dug in that they are right that no matter what proof you show them that they are wrong they will never change an answer or re-write a question.
    Then there is the corruption and cronyism that the people of Ft. Worth deserve to know about. There is proof out there. All it takes is good reporter with the determination and where with all to investigate and write about it. Betty Brink held the district’s feet to the fire and Eric, so should you. Remember with Watergate it was follow the money. The same thing applies here. Follow the money find out who benefits, in the district or on the board, if the district sells the land by Farrington Field instead of building the Fine Arts Academy there. There is evidence out there. These people are not as smart as they think they are. They’ve only been able to do what they have done by intimidation, bribery, and complacency. Please go after them and make a difference.

  4. I find it hilarious that FWISD continues to deny that retaliation, discrimination and bullying exists. It is apparent by what Dr. Sutherland has reported, not just in this story, and what Joe P. has endured for over 5 years, that there is INDEED a problem in our district with Administration bullies, haters and retaliators. It has existed in this district for as long as it has been a district. The one big thing I abhor immensely that ignorant people do, is underestimate my intelligence, when it comes to this unscrupulous district. No one else has dared to report any of the district transgressions, except for the late Betty Brink and intermittently since her death, by other reporters, like Eric Griffey. However, The Weekly has lost the drive to keep reporting on FWISD and Joe P. Instead, you report on Kiev Tatum, Pastor who fell from grace, who got elected FWISD Board President, and poor Dansby’s separation from the district. I have yet to read stories about Joe P. counsel change (and why), his trial win, the FWISD appeal and recent court date to decide where the appeal trial will be held. So now this story about Dr. Sutherland comes out, after her accusations about the Board have been going on for a while, especially as the Joe P. fiasco unfolded. I’m sorry if I sound bitter or skeptical here, but it’s the same B.S., different day, and according to a lot of people, a little too late. Joe P. won his case against the district; it was proven in a courtroom, by a Judge and a jury that he was retaliated against. He was awarded over 2 million and yet Robbins, under Needham’s regime of course, STILL refutes that retaliation and bullying exists in this district???!!! He and other district officials outright lied on the stand; it’s on the trial transcripts! “Denial is not just a river in Egypt”! Sutherland was even bullied by the district’s legal team, while ON the stand! This is NOT OKAY! How can this still be happening in this freakin’ district and NO ONE has done a damn thing about it? How can this district throw away almost a million dollars on one lawsuit? How is it possible that Needham’s war chest keeps getting bigger and she is still fighting Joe’s case, all because he and teachers reported the hot mess at AHHS…under her watch??? How is it possible that of the last 3 Supers: one was a psychotic bully; the second brought the school failure to an all-time high in 5 years, while allowing her Bestie, Needham, to completely run the district, to keep the bodies buried; the third being the first Black extremely overpaid Super, who continued the failing school trend, allowing Needham to continue to control the district. Then we were forced fed Linares, of all people to re-hire to ‘hold the fort down’, to be interim Super. It’s Just the same exact BS, different day; a different person under Needham’s incantation. And how in the world, could we allow Sorum, MJ flunkie and Needham chum, to continue to dictate the 3 week testing and sell it as a panacea to improve scores? Oh and btw, everyone knows he is waiting in the wings to obtain the next Super position!!! If it is NOT him, guaranteed it is someone with ties to Needham, MJ, Sorum, Linares or the like. Make no mistake; the next Super will be hired to keep the bullying, retaliation, sexual harassment, discrimination, and corruption under wraps. No one in their right mind, unrelated to Needham or her minions, would EVER want to come to this district! Would you want to deliberately subject yourself to a cesspool of insidious venality? I don’t think so, no matter how much they pay! Conversely, a lot of people in these times don’t have a conscious and would sell their soul for the right price. ALL THIS CRAP and our kids and employees continue to suffer, while the fat cats at Central get richer and smarter at spinning the web of lies and “hiding the bodies”, all the while wasting our taxpayer money. This is not what most of us signed up for, yet we continue to allow this district to violate our kids’ education and quash the spirit of many of our invaluable employees. We allow this or become complacent, because to say or do something about it would yield horrific retaliation of epic proportions. Our poster child for justice, Joe P., is solid proof of this!

  5. Over the past five years, FWISD has spent close to 2 million dollars on the Palazzolo witch hunt alone. Millions more have been squandered similar cases and more recently on outside Law Firms conducting “investigations” on targeted employees – some 200 I believe at last count.. More employees are burned at the stake weekly. The Bond has proven to be the biggest shell game in Fort Worth history. Some friend of Needham’s obviously wants the Farrington Field property. Jackson is supporting this (of course) and is a BIG proponent of children practicing “time management” on their two hour bus ride to school claiming they can “study”. This while her child travels across town to Paschal – NOT – Eastern Hills which she supposedly represents. There’s good ol’ TCU buying the silence of a Board Member who is under fire for his personal life and job brokering by creating yet another MJ-like job for him. And there are the stories complete with text messages, Facebook postings, photographs and eyewitness accounts of Administrators and Teachers in affairs and even “assaulting” female students – some younger than High School – with senior officials and at least one Board Member covering it up. Nothing is done because the Weekly simply stopped reporting on FWISD. Ann has had the courage to stand alone. I hope this story helps shed light on the transparency and change FWISD so desperately needs.

  6. FWISD simply mirrors FW-Tarrant Cty as a whole in regard to secrecy and rampant corruption. Many who really desired a true quality of life and great educational system long abandoned both accordingly.

  7. How can the district get away with requiring students that are classified as SPED and have federal teaching guidelines that require all tests to be modified, are not being modified on the three week SCA’s.
    How is this not a violation of the federal law?
    All the scores are recorded and computed into the overall schools assessments and thus teachers are then held accountable for the percentage that is recorded.
    Teachers are being required to complete SCA assessments even though the district sent out a mandate saying this was not required. I am fearful of reporting this action by my administration due to the history of the district retaliating against anyone who reports wrong doing.

    • Rex, you are correct about SPED. Teachers must refer to a special ed student’s IEP and provide the modifications which are specifically outlined For example, if a learning disabled student requires a specific prompt, shorter test, more time to take the test, these modifications must be provided. And naturally this requires the teacher’s reference to the student’s IEP which is time consuming. Plus what happens if the testing day happens when there is a substitute teacher?

  8. The ONLY option we have left after Tatum sold out ins filing a report with TEA through the State Auditor’s Office. This is fraud as it affects the Federal and State funding of education for the children. This report is the ONLY thing that will save you from retaliation by FWISD and its corrupt Board. Please pass along to every employee who wishes to report waste, fraud and abuse.

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