Fort Worth district had reason to fire Heights assistant principal, attorney says

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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As a whistle-blower case against the Fort Worth school district opened Tuesday, a lawyer for the district told a Wise County jury that Arlington Heights High School, where the self-proclaimed whistle-blower worked, “was a mess” with an “incompetent principal.”

But Joseph Palazzolo was not fired because he reported that, attorney Thomas Brandt said.

“He simply did not live up to the standards that we expect for administrators in any school district,” Brandt said.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth attorney representing Palazzolo, told the jury of five men and seven women that that is exactly why Palazzolo was fired: He reported wrongdoing at the campus in 2010.

Palazzolo told higher-ups that he saw campus administrators changing attendance records to improve Arlington Heights’ academic accountability rating, Smith said. He also reported inappropriate sexual relationships among school personnel and disparate discipline of minority students.

But Brandt, a Dallas attorney, ticked off seven reasons that the district fired Palazzolo. He gave a Power Point presentation asserting that Palazzolo was fired because he “lied and covered up the truth” on job applications by failing to disclose a federal criminal conviction, a state conviction and the fact that he had once been fired from a federal government job.

Palazzolo created a hostile work environment and bullied others, was disrespectful to students, parents and co-workers, violated school district policies and discriminated against minority students by disciplining them “more harshly and more often than white students,” Brandt said.

Brandt said Palazzolo was not the first to notify school district officials of concerns about Arlington Heights High.

“The place was a mess,” Brandt said. “Arlington Heights High School was run by an incompetent principal who didn’t document anything.”

The district took steps and “cleaned house,” he said. The principal and other campus employees resigned. But the whistle-blowers were “protected,” not retaliated against. And others who also raised concerns about Heights are still with the district or were promoted.

Testimony is expected to begin this morning the 271st state District Court in Wise County.

The state’s whistle-blower act allows a government employee to file a lawsuit in any county within an established council of governments where he or she lives, such as the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which includes Tarrant and Wise counties.

Smith said he filed the suit in Wise County because he thought he could get a speedier trial than in Tarrant County.

Palazzolo, of Weatherford, sued the district in July. He is asking to be reinstated to his job or a comparable position and is seeking damages, including court and attorney fees, the suit says.

Palazzolo started with Fort Worth district as a teacher in 2007 and was promoted to assistant principal after one year, working with ninth-graders at Arlington Heights. He had a “stellar” job evaluation in June 2009, but soon after he raised concerns, his June 2010 evaluation included negative comments, and he was transferred to Western Hills High School at a lower salary, Smith said.

It has been reported previously that the district investigated and verified some of Palazzolo’s concerns, including a sexual relationship between a coach and supervisors. The report, released in October 2010, said that Palazzolo singled out minorities for punishment, lied on his job application and falsified a student’s disciplinary record.

Days later, trustees voted to fire Palazzolo. In February 2011, an independent hearing examiner appointed by the Texas Education Agency upheld his dismissal, saying school trustees had good cause to terminate him. But a new hearing was ordered after it was determined that the district overpaid the examiner during the first one.

The district, however, never conducted another hearing. Trustees in February 2012 voted to pay him a year’s salary without reinstating him.

This is the second whistle-blower lawsuit that Palazzolo has pending against the school district. His first lawsuit, filed in October 2010, covers his complaint that after he filed reports about problems, he was demoted by being transferred to a job with a lower pay.

Palazzolo plans to take the stand in the current trial, Smith said.

“Joe is going to talk about his commitment to education and how he’d like to get on with his career,” Smith said Monday.

Among those expected to testify are current and former Arlington Heights teachers, former Fort Worth school district Superintendent Melody Johnson and Sylvia Reyna, the district’s former chief of administration, who oversaw a 2010 investigation of the campus.

This includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326 Twitter: @jessamybrown

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