Former Arlington Heights assistant principal gets job, cash in settlement

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A former assistant principal at Arlington Heights High School will get an administrative job and $300,000 under a settlement reached Wednesday — just before testimony was to begin in his whistle-blower suit against the Fort Worth school district.

Joseph Palazzolo will get a central administration job as an educational logistics administrator and will be paid about $74,000 each of the two years of his contract. The district will also pay Palazzolo and his attorney Jason Smith $300,000.

In return, Palazzolo will dismiss a second whistle-blower lawsuit against the district.

“I look forward to returning to an administrative contract and moving forward with my career,” said Palazzolo, who claimed the Fort Worth school district fired him for reporting wrongdoings at Arlington Heights.

The settlement will become final pending approval by the Fort Worth school district board of trustees. Attorney Thomas Brandt, representing the school district, told Judge John H. Fostel that the settlement will be presented to trustees at the next board meeting.

“We want to move as quickly as possible to get this done,” Brandt said.

A special board meeting will be called for Monday, said board President Judy Needham, who declined further comment pending the vote.

The trial started on Tuesday with opening statements and testimony was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning.

But about 9 a.m. lawyers announced that a compromise agreement had been reached.

Fired in 2010

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

Palazzolo started with the 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.

School district officials investigated and verified some of Palazzolo’s concerns, including the falsifying of attendance records and a sexual relationship between a coach and supervisors.

The report on the investigation, released in October 2010, also 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.

‘The system worked’

“We worked hard with the district to come to a fair resolution,” said Smith, Palazzolo’s attorney.

After the settlement was announced in court and jurors were dismissed, Palazzolo spoke to several witnesses waiting in the courthouse to testify on his behalf Wednesday morning.

At least eight current and former teachers were expected to testify, including Jacob Barron, a former English teacher at Heights.

Barron said that attendance records from his class were changed and he reported the problems to Palazzolo.

“He was the best assistant principal I’ve ever worked with in terms of following through, being fair, being equitable and holding kids accountable, staff too for that matter,” Barron said Wednesday in an interview with the Star-Telegram. “I think that at the time, we had a culture of enabling at our school. What looked good was more important than what was actually going on.”

Barron, now a field engineer at a petroleum company, said the settlement is the “best outcome” in the case.

Larry Shaw, former executive director for the United Educators Association, was expected to testify on Thursday.

“I believe that this settlement is good for the district and for Joe Palazzolo,” Shaw said in a telephone interview. “It’s also good for employees to know that they can stand up and report things that are wrong and the system worked.”

‘This is a case that needed to be resolved’

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 lower pay. That suit will be dismissed as part of the settlement agreement.

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.

Judge Fostel told the attorneys that he appreciated that they worked out an agreement.

“I think it was prudent on everybody’s part to resolve this matter,” he said. “This is a case that needed to be resolved and I appreciate your getting it done.”

This includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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

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