When Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, it did more than wash away homes, levees, and roads. Its aftermath was used as a pretext for destroying the livelihoods of 7,500 New Orleans Public School employees.
Three months after the hurricane closed New Orleans’ schools, the Louisiana Department of Education seized control of the Orleans Parish School District and diverted badly needed state money away from the district, causing the firing of nearly all the district’s teachers, teacher assistants, principals, counselors, custodians, clerks, and others.
But last week a Louisiana judge ruled the firings illegal and ordered the Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board to pay seven former school district employees $1.3 million in lost wages, benefits, and interest. The plaintiffs represented a class of illegally fired employees all of whom will be eligible to recover lost wages and benefits if the judge’s ruling is not overturned by an appeals court.
The state board of education and OPSB have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.
“This is a huge milestone in what has been a long and difficult journey for hard-working and loyal school board employees who suffered great hardship because of the illegal and unjust termination after Hurricane Katrina,” read a statement on New Orleans Public School Employees Justice (NOPSE) website. NOPSE led the legal fight against the firings.
Judge Ethel Simms Julien in a lengthy explanation of her ruling laid out the facts that led to her decision. As a result of contentious relationship between the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and the state education department, a relationship that pre-dated Katrina, the department in November 2005 took control of 102 of the 120 schools governed by OPSB and diverted 90 percent of the state’s funding for the New Orleans Public Schools into the state administered Recovery School District.
About 7,500 public school employees were then put on Disaster Leave Without Pay retroactive back to the second week of the school year when Katrina struck. In January, contributions to their health insurance were stopped.
In February, OPSB announced that 7,500 of its employees would be terminated effective in March.
The judge said the firings were illegal because the school board and state education department violated state laws governing termination of tenured and permanent staff. Judge Julien said that there was no such thing as Disaster Leave Without Pay. It was, she said, created on the fly as a justification for not paying staff salaries while they waited for schools to reopen.
Louisiana law says that tenured and permanent public school staff can only be fired for incompetence, lapses of morality, or neglect of duty. None of those reasons were stated on the termination notices as required by state law. In fact, in most cases, the fired staff were hard working employees who loyally served the district and its students.
The judge also noted that the termination notices were sent haphazardly, causing many to go unnotified about their termination and that there was no recall plan as required by law to restaff schools when they re-opened.
The judge also raised questions about the state take over of New Orleans’ public schools. She noted that the Recovery School District took control of the 102 schools ostensibly because they were failing, but 88 of those schools met or exceeded state requirements for adequate yearly progress.
The judge said that the state justified the takeovers by raising the acceptable State Performance score from 60 to 87.5, a score that was subsequently returned to 60 before the 2010 school year began.
The Recovery School District (RSD) converted 31 of the schools to charter schools. State officials decided not to allow New Orleans Public School teachers and staff to apply for positions in the charter schools or the other schools operated by RSD.
It chose, instead, to fill some open positions by contracting with Teach for America, a federal program that gives recently graduated college students with no teaching experience the opportunity to teach in underserved schools.
NOPSE called the state officials’ decision barring experienced staff from applying for the open positions, ”a tragedy” undertaken “to advance (the official’s) political agendas.”
United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter called the judge’s decision a great day for students and public schools. “The message of this decision is that the educational communities must understand that going forward they must live and act within the law,” Sanders said.