Fort Worth trustees fire ex-assistant principal at Arlington Heights who filed complaints

FORT WORTH -- Fort Worth school board members voted Tuesday to fire a former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal who claims he is being retaliated against for filing complaints of wrongdoing at the school.

Joseph Palazzolo, 55, said he will remain on paid leave while he appeals the decision to the Texas Education Agency. On Monday, Palazzolo filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the district.

The board voted 6-3 to terminate Palazzolo, with Trustees Carlos Vasquez, Juan Rangel and Ann Sutherland opposing the move. Vasquez blasted Superintendent Melody Johnson for recommending the termination, saying the administration is bullying staffers who bring forward complaints.

"Tonight we should be looking at you and your lack of concern. ... Shame on you," he said to Johnson, noting that no supporting documents justified Palazzolo's firing. "We went on a witch hunt, and now you're going to fire him for it."

Board President Ray Dickerson, however, said the evidence does justify Palazzolo's termination.

"The message I hope the board sends ... is that we will not tolerate the kind of behavior that this investigation has turned up," Dickerson said.

During closed session, the board was informed that former Arlington Heights Principal Neta Alexander and Assistant Superintendent Chuck Boyd have agreed to resign. Both were part of the investigation at Heights and have been on paid leave since the start of the school year.

Administrators said concerns about Palazzolo surfaced in the investigation, including how he treated staff and students and claims that he unfairly disciplined minority students.

Administrators also said Palazzolo lied on his job application twice by not disclosing criminal misdemeanors and that he had been fired from previous employment.

Johnson said administrators did not retaliate against anyone.

"Despite public scrutiny and assumptions about what the facts are, it's incumbent upon me to weigh all the facts and do the right thing," Johnson said.

Palazzolo told board members that he has done nothing wrong and that district officials went after him only after he reported problems at Heights, which included the falsifying of student records to improve the school's accountability rating.

He has denied all the district's findings against him.

"I am disappointed," said Palazzolo after the vote. "There is a culture of fear here, and I'm the poster child for that."

Heights teacher Chad Whitt told trustees that Palazzolo helped the staff and in turn has been crucified.

Now teachers live in fear of coming forward with concerns, Whitt said.

"We hear loud and clear in this district that if you come forward, if you do the right thing, you will be retaliated against," Whitt said.

The district's investigation into Heights substantiated many of Palazzolo's claims, including that records were falsified, that students earned credit for noninstructional work and that administrators managed inappropriately.

But district officials also claim that Palazzolo is not a whistle-blower. They said that a teacher first brought forward Heights concerns and that Palazzolo didn't report his information until after he learned he was likely to be transferred.

Palazzolo said he learned he was being transferred after he submitted his complaints.

Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna, who oversaw the investigation, said that as it progressed, many allegations about Palazzolo were brought forward that officials had an obligation to investigate as well. She said investigators have solid evidence to support those allegations.

Reyna said that Palazzolo was given an opportunity to try to refute the district's findings but that he did not present evidence. Palazzolo denies that he had the opportunity to do so and denies all the district's findings against him.

Palazzolo had been placed on paid leave since the first week of school as the district investigated those claims.

Palazzolo also questioned why board member Judy Needham was able to vote on his termination when complaints filed by him name her as a person allowing the wrongdoings to go on at the school.

Needham has declined to comment on the complaints. She said she supported his firing because of the strong evidence against him.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700