An outside attorney hired by the Fort Worth school board determined that trustee Ashley Paz participated in a campaign to remove the Daggett Montessori principal and made “disparaging” remarks about the school leader — findings that were the basis for her censure.
The findings are outlined in a Jan. 2 report, called “Investigation of Complaints against Trustee Ashley Paz.” The 21-page document was used by Fort Worth school board members Tuesday evening when they voted 5-3 to censure Paz.
Heather Castillo, the school board’s attorney, refused to turn over the report Tuesday after it became public. She emailed it to the Star-Telegram late Wednesday afternoon.
The grievance against Paz stems from a campus conflict about the principal at Daggett Montessori that blew up at the end of last school year when the district was considering moving her to the Applied Learning Center.
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“It’s drama. It didn’t need to get to this level,” Paz said. “It got blown way out of proportion.”
Paz denies that she meddled and said she supports the principal. She said she walks a fine line between hearing the concerns of constituents and pointing them to where they can find answers to their issues. She said her case is an example of board politics flowing into campus-level politics.
The school board vote came after a motion by trustee Ann Sutherland. It followed a three-hour public hearing that included 10-minute presentations by the complainant, Heather Leaf, and Paz’s attorney, Lynn Rossi Scott.
Leaf told the Star-Telegram she is happy the board approved an independent lawyer to review the case. She added that the results showed that Paz “took part in a campaign to oust the current principal at DMS” and made “disparaging remarks” about the principal..
“This independent, non-partisan investigation led to the board’s formal statement of disapproval of Trustee Paz’s actions,” Leaf stated in an email. “I am hopeful the decision to censure Trustee Paz will protect administration and teachers from further attempts to damage careers and reputations.”
An outside attorney
The school board’s law firm, Leasor Crass, PC, of Mansfield, hired Fort Worth attorney Cynthia L. Hill to conduct the investigation.
An email to the district asking for the legal costs for Hill and the attorney representing Paz was forwarded to Castillo, who represents the board. An open records request seeking the same information is pending with the district.
The independent investigation 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 is she using her position to oversee personnel matters and assert control at the Montessori school?
Hill interviewed Leaf, Paz, seven parents, two teachers and six district administrators. 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.
Hill 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.
“For the majority of the school year, Trustee Paz maintained her distance from the parental complaints at DMS and clearly followed her role as a board member in referring complaints to the appropriate administrators,” the report states. “However, this distinct line between Board member and parent was crossed in May 2018.”
Hill describes multiple interviewees stating that Paz wanted the principal removed.
Hill recommended that the board censure Paz in private and ask that she take part in additional board training.
‘This is new for the board’
Sutherland, trustee for District 6, made the motion in favor of the censure on Tuesday.
Sutherland, who herself was censured by the board several years ago, said she supported seeking an outside attorney to handle the investigation. She said she was also under the impression there were other board members floating the idea of getting an outside attorney so the case could be handled in an impartial manner.
School board president Tobi Jackson said Tuesday that board members wanted a neutral person to look into the matter.
“The censure was recommended by the independent investigator,” Jackson said in a text message Tuesday. “It was the mildest sanction possible.”
Still, the process has come under question by school board member Christene Moss, who said she learned that an outside attorney was reviewing the case when she received a copy of the report a few days ago.
“The president told us the process in the middle of the process. Some of the board members were aware of the process and what was happening and some of the board members were not,” Moss said.
Moss said she didn’t question the need to investigate the parent’s grievance, but wondered if there was a better way. She said it was the first time the board had handled a complaint by a parent against a trustee.
“This is new for the board,” Moss said. “We do not use the taxpayers dollars for a hearing. I don’t know who decided on using the taxpayers dollars.”
Moss said she wonders if the board set a precedent. In the past, hearings against teachers or personnel haven been handled by the administration. Additionally, trustees hear parent complaints almost every day.
“It does open up a can of worms,” Moss said. “I don’t know how we will resolve what we have started.”