Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

‘Wrongful Termination’ says judge in ruling for school employees

25th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

Culminating a trial that began over a year ago, seven former Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) employees received a favorable verdict this week in their class-action case against the OPSB, the Department of Education (DOE) and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Judge Ethel Simms Julien awarded over $1 million to the seven plaintiffs in a ruling that opens the door for other former OPSB employees to bring wrongful termination cases. The original seven claimants include three teachers, a teacher’s aide, an assistant principal and two administrative staff. Each received an award based on the losses they suffered from the termination, ranging from $48,000 to $480,000.

A spokesperson for the State Department of Education, Barry Landry, sent an email statement to The Louisiana Weekly regarding the decision and the possibility of an appeal. “We are disappointed with yesterday’s ruling and are considering all options.” The OPSB also issued a statement through its spokesperson to The Louisiana Weekly, which noted that the lengthy court documents required careful examination. “While we understand the interest in this lawsuit,” the statement read, “it would be premature for us to discuss it in public at this point.”

Larry Carter, President of United Teachers of New Orleans, the union that these firings decimated, told The Louisiana Weekly that his organization was pleased with the outcome, although they also expect an appeal. “The attorneys have been working tirelessly over the last hours to come up with questions that the class may have,” Carter said, explaining that his office had fielded dozens of calls and text messages from former OPSB employees since the verdict was announced. To prevent rumors from creating misinformation, Carter told The Louisiana Weekly that all the information related to the case can be found online at www.nopsejustice.com.

The judgment and reasons for judgment are also accessible at this site. The reasons document offers a detailed history of the OPSB, including its financial difficulties prior to Katrina, difficulties, which, according to the document, threatened the state’s ability to continue receiving federal education funds. Among the reasons for judgment, the court notes that the Board “placed all OPSB employees on ‘Disaster Leave Without Pay,’” which it sustains “was a fictional employment status that did not terminate any of the Plaintiffs.” The reasons document also affirms that “this status did not justify withholding [the plaintiffs] salaries for a seven (7) month period” between August 29, 2005 and March 26, 2006. In addition to criticizing the failure to pay wages to OPSB employees during the months following the storm, the court also recriminated the state because it “did not ensure that any” of the $500 million “Restart Funds” given to the state by the federal government were “used to pay the salaries or benefits of the Plaintiff Class. Rather, the State Defendants diverted these funds to the RSD.” The notes to this point also detail that “the State Defendants…aggressively sought to employ out-of-state employees (offering them signing bonuses and housing allowances as high as $17,500).” Willie Zanders, Sr., who represented the seven plaintiffs in the case called this behavior “unAmerican” when he spoke with The Louisiana Weekly. In a written statement, Zanders said that “this is a major milestone in what has been a long and difficult struggle for 7,000 employees and their families who have suffered since Hurricane Katrina.”

According to the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, approximately 80 percent of the students in New Orleans now attend charter schools as opposed to schools run directly by the OPSB or the Recovery School District (RSD). In the wake of the storm, the state stepped in and took control of the bulk of Orleans Parish’s schools since they were failing academically. This move represents the birth of the New Orleans chapter of the RSD. Since the storm, New Orleans has become a national laboratory for public school reform efforts, with a substantial emphasis on the charter model, which relies on private or non-profit organizations to run and manage schools. Lois Lockhart, who had worked for OPSB for 33 years when Katrina hit, was one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Because it was a wrongful decision that they [the defendants] made, so I just decided that justice had to prevail. I wanted to be a voice for all of those 7,500 of us who were fired,” Lockhart told The Louisiana Weekly in a phone interview. Estimates of the number of people who qualify as “class” members vary, but hover around 7,000.

Lockhart shared her sense of gratitude for the ruling. “I’m just thanking God that she [Judge Julien] did see that we were tenured, permanent employees and we were not given any due process. And to be just terminated that way, that was just wrong.”

This article was originally published in the June 25, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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