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That investigation of a Fort Worth school trustee? Here’s how much it cost taxpayers

The Fort Worth school district’s legal fees and expenses tied to an investigation against trustee Ashley Paz totaled as much as $68,682.53 as of Jan. 10, according to information received by the Star-Telegram through an public records request.

The Fort Worth school board censured Paz this month after reviewing a complaint from Heather Leaf, a Daggett Montessori parent, who accused Paz of meddling in campus management and trying to get the principal removed last year. Paz was also directed to complete leadership training.

“Those funds could have been used in so many better ways,” Paz said.

An attorney representing the school board said the total cost provided for the investigation may include legal work on unrelated matters.

Paz said the case was the result of board politics mixed with disagreements between factions of parents a Daggett Montessori.

“We complied with the investigation fully,” Paz said. “We never felt the investigation was proper, but we still complied with it.”

Paz said when she learned a grievance was filed against her, she went to the school district attorney for counsel, but was told he couldn’t advise her because the board has its own attorney. Paz was then provided a list of attorneys who have been approved by the district for outside counsel.

Three law firms were ultimately involved in the case — one to represent the board, one to investigate the complaint and one to represent Paz. The legal fee totals as of Jan. 10 were:

Brackett & Ellis, PC, which represented Paz: $18,110.06

Decker Jones, PC, which presented an investigative report: $23,712

Leasor Crass, PC, which represented the school board: $26,860.47

Ann Sutherland, a school board member who supported Paz’s censure, said the board’s investigation began after Paz asked the Texas Education Agency to look into the matter. Sutherland said the TEA indicated it was the board’s responsibility to respond.

Even if Sutherland and Paz don’t agree about the handling of the investigation, they both said legal price tag was too high.

“The $68,000 is a horrible cost,” Sutherland said. “It was necessitated by Trustee Paz’s request.”

Heather Castillo, the attorney representing the school board, said the legal fee summary may include other hours of representation.

“I have not verified the summary,” Castillo said in an email. “It was created by the District and I believe the total includes some hours for other representation of the Board. While the grievance was pending, in order to monitor costs, it was requested that I try to indicate specifically the time spent on this matter in order to deal with Ms. Leaf’s grievance, Ms. Paz’s response and the process of hearing the grievance. While this is not a typical board matter, it is not accurate to refer to it as ‘extra.’”

Complaint by a parent

Paz was the focus of a grievance hearing based on a complaint filed by Leaf, the Daggett Montessori parent, who questioned Paz’s role in a campus rift about the principal last year.

The grievance, filed Aug. 8, followed concerns last summer that the district would move Principal Veronica Delgado. Delgado, who remains as the school’s principal, was both criticized and praised by parents about her leadership at the school.

Read: PDF of FW ISD investigation report

On Jan. 8, the school board voted 5-3 in favor of censuring Paz. The vote came after a motion by Sutherland. It followed a public hearing that took about three hours and included 10-minute presentations by Leaf, and Paz’s attorney, Lynn Rossi Scott.

Scott is an attorney at Brackett & Ellis, a Fort Worth firm.

The independent investigation commissioned by the school board began on Sept. 19 and focused on five areas: Did Paz disparage the principal? Did she take part in a campaign to oust the principal? Did she use her position to exert influence over administrators? Did she use her position to disseminate personal information? And did she use her position to oversee personnel matters and assert control at the Montessori school?

The report, which protects the identities of several people in the conflict, paints a picture of a school mired in personal politics that touched on concerns about the Montessori program, reports of bullying and racism, and the principal’s future.

The report stated that allegations that Paz disparaged the principal were substantiated. Also substantiated were complaints that Paz tried to oust the principal. The other three allegations were not substantiated.

Leaf said she was pleased with the board’s decision, but the case isn’t settled for her. She said she has concerns that weren’t addressed by the board.

“Ashley Paz’s unethical behavior and malicious intent to destroy a school principal cost this district nearly $70k. I’m furious about that,” Leaf told the Star-Telegram in an email.

Sutherland, who was censured six years ago, said she would have welcomed scrutiny from an outside attorney in her case.

“My vote was based on those two findings and the additional evidence produced by Heather Leaf in her testimony,” Sutherland said. “In my case, I also noted that Ms. Paz’s attorney’s provided no evidence that any of these charges were incorrect; rather she simply made denials without presenting any evidence that the conclusions were incorrect.”

But Paz said the board could have heard the grievance in September, when it was originally scheduled. Instead, an outside attorney was enlisted to investigate the complaint. She said the board could have even opted to censure her in the fall without the added cost.

“The way the school board handled it was straight up malfeasance,” Paz said.

Paz, whose children attend the school, said she supports the principal and wants the school to reunite and restore its sense of community.

“In a perfect world, this would now be done and the campus could begin to heal,” Paz said.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.