SHARE
It’s been a long time since Joe Palazzolo’s hair was dark. His ordeal, he said, has “taken a toll.” Photo by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue.

Sitting at our table at a South Fort Worth eatery, our cups of coffee long cold, our conversation wrapping up, Joe Palazzolo recalled photos of him that the Weekly took more than a decade ago, when his case was just beginning to be talked about. In the picture, he said with a self-deprecating grin, “My hair was dark.” He pointed to his hair now — almost completely white — then, without as much bitterness as I would have thought, added, “It’s taken a toll.”

The “it” is his decade-plus-long battle with the Fort Worth school district to regain his job, from which he believes he was unjustly fired. His saga, which he had just related to me, has more convolutions than Everything Everywhere All at Once but with the ending unfortunately still unknown and without the Oscar buzz and parallel universes.

In 1989, after being in the Army, running a small business, and working for the government, Palazzolo decided education was the career for him. As he recalled, “Education was a natural fit for me. … It was a natural transition from the military, in that 99% of what you do in the military is learn and teach others. You are also in the ultimate diversity of the human experience. I loved it. I loved teaching. I loved being an administrator and making a difference.”

SS Summer Ad 300x250

In 2009, Palazzolo was in the second year of his dream job as an assistant principal at Arlington Heights High School. As he believes, he was naïve. “Like a babe in the woods,” he added. Not being from Fort Worth, he didn’t really understand the intense political infighting that’s unfortunately endemic in the fifth-largest school district in Texas.

It’s then I interjected, telling Palazzolo that when I started in Fort Worth ISD in 1996, I was shocked how regular classroom teachers would go into detail about the latest shenanigans of board members and administrators, talking about who was up or down. In the four previous school districts where I’d worked, I had never heard classroom teachers bringing up the petty inside politics of the school district with other teachers. Never.

As Palazzolo related it to me, as far as he knew, that school year of 2009-2010 at Arlington Heights was going well. He was in charge of the freshman class and freshman teachers, a great cadre of educators, in his view. On that year’s evaluation, he received “Exceeds Expectations,” and his principal, Neta Alexander, had recommended him for a promotion — to be a principal at Metro Opportunity High School.

Palazzolo: “The kids know when you have low expectations. If you don’t expect them to go to class, [and] you’re not going to do anything to make sure they go to class … some of those kids don’t have that in their lives.”
Photo by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue.
At that same time, because he was named Arlington Heights’ diversity representative, teachers had been coming to him with “complaints, ranging from inappropriate conduct, assault by an administrator on staff, sexual harassment, attendance alteration, theft, embezzlement, and discrimination against minority students.”

One of the complaints that really bothered him was the falsifying of attendance records. Students were allowed to clean for credit. By dusting windows, they perversely and illegally made up for their absences. When Palazzolo saw minority students being allowed to do that, he felt it was a prime example of the bigotry of low expectations. He felt compelled to fight for the teachers and students of Arlington Heights and present those complaints.

At the time, he and the teachers coming forward were assured by both the superintendent at the time, Melody Johnson, and the district’s diversity representative, Sharon Herrera, that there would be no retaliation. However, it wasn’t too long after Palazzolo submitted the teachers’ list of grievances in May that Johnson and other leaders broke those promises.

First, the district told him he was being transferred to the International Newcomer Academy, a definite demotion, and, later, the district decided to instead transfer him to Western Hills High School. It was proof to him that Johnson and other leaders were retaliating against him.

Here, Palazzolo paused and noted that over the past few years he had been trying to put all this out of his mind. Once he started recounting it, it all vividly came back, he added, with a sigh.

 

*****

 

I remembered reading about his case in 2010, but when faced with more than a decade of information, I knew I had to look deeper. Going through the Weekly’s search engine, I found more than two dozen pieces over the years with such headlines as “It’s Official: Palazzolo’s Head Is on Johnson’s Platter” and “Day Two: Joe Palazzolo V FWISD.”

Interestingly, the amount of notice this case garnered in Fort Worth’s “paper of record” is minuscule by comparison. Not to brag, but the Star-Telegram is deeply immersed in the Fort Worth Way, which allows powerbrokers to break the rules without accountability whether at City Hall, the county courthouse, or the school board. We try not to let that happen.

In 2010, Palazzolo’s case angered many and not just those close to him. Larry Shaw felt compelled to defend Palazzolo.

“When it was all laid out,” said the then-head of the United Educators Association, a local group that represents educational employees, “I thought this guy had gotten a really raw deal, so we agreed that the right thing to do was to work to get him his job back. He is a straight-arrow guy, a retired military man who did exactly what he was told to do by the district and got demoted for it. Incredible.”

After Palazzolo made a formal complaint to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which oversees primary and secondary education, and the Weekly published an expose (“Powder Keg at Arlington Heights High,” Aug. 11, 2010), the retaliation intensified. Palazzolo’s evaluation was changed by the district from “Exceeds Expectations” to “Needs Improvement.” As Shaw described it at the time, “This is a classic tale of killing the messenger.”

To understand why those in power were so determined to retaliate against Palazzolo for, in their minds, damaging Arlington Heights’ reputation, we need to understand that, at the time, as the Weekly reported, Principal “Alexander … ha[d] long been determined to avoid negative publicity about her school.” She seemed “obsessed with lifting the taint of the ‘Academically Unacceptable’ rating the school received in 2009.”

Not only was the principal determined to hide the problems at Arlington Heights, but also Judy Needham, the school board member representing the Arlington Heights area, reportedly felt just as strongly that Palazzolo had damaged the school. Her enemy was not the wrongdoing Palazzolo had uncovered but the man who had, in his capacity as the school’s diversity representative, exposed its failings for them to be solved.

In discussing Needham, it was the first time I saw Palazzolo really get emotional. He grappled with finding just the right words to describe her, then shook his head and said, “Especially in regards to my case, I question her ethics, character, and morals.”

Later, he said he feels that through her PAC (Political Action Committee), Needham is still intimately involved with Fort Worth ISD and its elections, calling the present school board president, Tobi Jackson, “a minion” of Needham’s.

I reached out to both Needham and Jackson for comment but did not hear back.

Instead of remedying the problems at Arlington Heights and other campuses, the district has spent years going after the messenger. Palazzolo was demoted, transferred, fired, reinstated, and then fired a second time, but that was not all the district did. It seems they tried to destroy his reputation. Trying to defame him, they levied inflammatory but spurious charges against him — falsifying his initial application, violating district policy, creating a hostile work environment, violating the teachers’ code of ethics, and, worst of all, inappropriate touching of a student. In the hearings following Palazzolo’s firing, those charges were proven to be baseless.

Regardless of the district’s obsessive retaliation and false allegations, Palazzolo was awarded $2.4 million by a jury in 2014 for wrongful termination. The district appealed that ruling, and now Palazzolo awaits a new, ordered trial “because of an error in the court’s charge to the jury in the first trial.”

In 2014, a jury awarded Palazzolo $1.4 million, but the district appealed the decision.

Since then, the district has played a cynical and wastefully expensive game of delay that’s included two unsuccessful appeals to the Texas Supreme Court and four unserious attempts at mediation. As Palazzolo told the Weekly in 2014, the district has allegedly paid out “millions … in legal fees … all with taxpayer money.”

The district doesn’t want to settle, Palazzolo feels, because that would set a bad precedent. Those in charge don’t want bad publicity or the truth to come out. If teachers and administrators know the district will fire you and also try to ruin your reputation, then the powers-that-be can be sure their employees will not show the public what’s really going on.

 

*****

 

I listened to Palazzolo’s woes while in the background played what passes for country music these days over the usual din of plates being set down and the steady clicking of cutlery. I was just incredulous. Here was a man who had lost his dream job and afterward could not land another job in education. He had to switch to working retail, which he likes but describes as just a job. Plus, during this time, he had to burn through his savings and cash in his state retirement. When I heard that, I asked Palazzolo how he has been able to persevere for more than a decade at his quest to regain his position and to get what is justly coming to him despite the district’s stonewalling.

“I have a strong family. If I even considered taking the deal they offered me, my wife would tell me not to come home,” he added with a laugh.

He also credits living on his small ranch with helping him keep his sanity. All the dumpster-fire drama that went on in Fort Worth could not touch the reality of him being able to work with his hands. “I have tried to immerse myself in my family, neighbors, and ranch.”

And he has definitely immersed himself in the outdoor ranching world. He has learned such new skills as how to grow hay and weld. Also, he has picked up how to breed, raise, and work cattle. Plus, he has “rescued several horses and raised registered German Shepherds.”

Palazzolo also pointed to his strong religious beliefs and his military background with helping him stand up to the Fort Worth school district. “I have a strong sense of right and wrong. All we ever wanted to do was to straighten the mess out … The kids know when you have low expectations. If you don’t expect them to go to class, [and] you’re not going to do anything to make sure they go to class,” his voice then trailed off. “Some of those kids don’t have that in their lives, and I loved that about teaching. I felt I was making a difference.”

For Palazzolo, living on his small ranch has helped him continue to battle the school district.
Photo courtesy of Andrew and Kaitlyn Goode.

In September 2022, at the advice of his counsel at the time, Palazzolo applied for five different positions with Fort Worth ISD after more than a decade of being shut out of education. Once he applied, he didn’t really know what to expect. Then, surprisingly, he received a call back right away. It was a district recruiter, and, as Palazzolo described it, she excitedly told him she would be able to put him to work.

Palazzolo was surprised. He asked her if he would be going back to work the next school year or the next semester? No, she allegedly said, right away. Next week, in fact. Then she explained that the district is short on administrators and teachers.

It would have been interesting to have seen the district’s reaction when that earnest recruiter found out she had practically offered a job to the man the district has been trying to destroy for years. Here she was, thrilled she might be able to reel in an overqualified candidate at the same time Fort Worth ISD was hemorrhaging teacher and administrator positions.

Around that time, NBC-5 reported that even though the fall semester had already begun, “Fort Worth ISD [is] hiring 300 teachers and campus monitors.” Also, the Star-Telegram said one month earlier that “staffing shortages have left teachers scrambling to cover classes for absent colleagues.”

This shows just how awful and wrongheaded this overly long vengeance crusade has been. The district desperately needs experienced administrators like Palazzolo, who is willing and has been waiting years to go back to work. Of course, since we don’t own insect drones to allow us to spy on other people’s conversations, we’ll never know exactly how the formerly excited recruiter finally learned that Palazzolo is, as far as Fort Worth ISD is concerned, completely unwelcome.

In October, Palazzolo was sent a form email that said his “profile did not move forward in the recruiting process” because he had earlier resigned and explained that his “current resignation code is do not rehire.” Interestingly, the email contradicts contemporaneous reporting that Palazzolo was fired.

Palazzolo then realized this was the key to understanding what had happened in his past. For three years after he was fired, he had tried to land a position at other area school districts. Despite all his efforts, he had not been able to go back to doing what he loved. Palazzolo feels this new information makes it clear that he was blacklisted from education all this time because Fort Worth had mislabeled him as “resigned, not to be rehired.” Asked to respond to Palazzolo’s charges, district spokesperson Claudia Garibay said in an email that “due to ongoing litigation … we are unable to comment on this matter at this time.”

Next month, the date for Palazzolo’s new trial will be set. Potentially, the district could end up paying him upwards of $4 million, which would include $1 million in back pay, plus interest, and $250,000 in damages. With a new, more aggressive attorney, Palazzolo hopes to go on the offensive and try to prove that district personnel repeatedly lied under oath about an attendance audit from the U.S. Department of Education at the first trial and that School Board President Jackson was implicated in that perjury charge.

Joe Palazzolo did his job, and Fort Worth ISD fired him for that. He was a whistleblower who was letting the district know of real wrongdoing. He cannot be brushed off as some crank or a disgruntled employee.

The Fort Worth school district’s cynical game of delay is intended to go on until Palazzolo either accepts a settlement or dies. The district has gone to the Texas Supreme Court twice and lost both times. They’ve offered Palazzolo money but never what he wants and is rightly owed — his job back. The district has already spent millions of dollars fighting him. What they ought to do if they lose again is what they should have done all along: pay Palazzolo what he’s lost, give him his job back, and stop wasting taxpayer money on a petty political vendetta.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is really a poor use of TAX PAYER money. The article did not mention the Dept of Education audit triggered by Joe’ disclosure which resulted in FWISD repaying 44 million to TEA. School Board elections are near. Think about this and other outstanding liabilities we have yet to hear about when voting for incumbents – in particular, Tobi Jackson.

  2. As a retired teacher of 23 years, I worked with Joe Palazzolo in the Springtown ISD for 4 or 5 of those years and found him to be what I would call a “decent dude.” I remember telling him about some of the “shenanigans” that went on with the all important state test when I taught in an elementary school in the Birdville ISD that I, unfortunately, learned about as well as some of the recriminations I went through simply for HAVING learned about them; that is until I packed my grip and split from that district. He seemed at the time to be pretty shocked, whether due to disbelief in my story or because of the story itself I don’t know. However, I assure you that FW ISD is not the only school district out there where such corruption, as outlined in your report, occurs. In fact, it COULD be the norm, I don’t know. I have been wondering about what was going on with his case as I had not heard or seen anything recently, and I thank you for the fine update. I must say that, in my opinion, he will not ever actually work in an administrative position in FW ISD again, if he ever ever works in the education field at all. (Why he would actually WANT to after all he has been put through is a question in my mind, but that’s neither here nor there as everyone has different levels of dedication.) I truly hate saying this and I DO hope that I am wrong, but the sad fact is that those “in charge” in school districts simply have too many ways to fuck you over if you happen to get on their bad side, which is probably WHY you don’t hear more about this kind of thing. People in the education field need their jobs too. Best of luck to him.

  3. I am glad that Mr. Palazzolo is still fighting. I was on the board during that period and he was one of the few professionals with a backbone. Judy Needham is the worst public representative I ever served with.

    Good luck,Joe. Please let us know how it comes out

  4. I’ve known Joe since the “Powder Keg” article surfaced. I remember reading the article in disbelief, and felt angered for him! One of my friends said she knew him and his backstory. The day I met him shortly thereafter, I was in awe of his larger than life presence. He was a big old teddy bear, yes, with black hair! I deal with people for a living. I know things about people before they know. When I met him, I sensed his awe-inspiring energy! He was genuine, kind, strong, and loving! Not at all like a lot of people negatively painted him to be. I went to one of the hearings and heard awful things said about him that were hurtful and untrue! This has been nothing short of a witch hunt all these years and counting. The district has lost at a lot of legal turns, yet they keep spending money, because they refuse to take responsibilty. I pray one day soon this long and arduous process ends, and Joe receives his long awaited justice! Stay strong, friend!

  5. The article is okay, but “The Longest Period?” Seriously? Who wrote that — 2 snickering middle school boys?

LEAVE A REPLY