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7,500 fired teachers take their case to U.S. Supreme Court

16th March 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Nearly a decade after the mass firing of all 7,500 Orleans Parish public school employees, and the subsequent wrongful termination lawsuit that has seen both victories and losses, attorney Willie Zanders is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Specifically, Zanders filed a petition for the nation’s highest court to review the October, 2014 Louisiana Supreme Court decision that overturned two prior rulings in lower courts made in favor of the terminated employees.

Zanders said that after Louisiana’s top court dismissed the case in a 5-2 vote, seeking the involvement of the U.S. Supreme Court is “our only option.” Zanders vehemently argues that the due process rights (protected under federal law) of the employees were violated.

“I believe the takeover of 102 New Orleans Public Schools when students, parents, teachers and voters were under a mandatory evacuation due to Hurricane Katrina was unconstitutional, immoral, and un-American,” he said in a press release.

In October, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that the employees’ rights had not been violated, and that the issues had already been dealt with in lawsuits filed by the teachers’ union.

Prior to that decision, judges in district and appellate courts had sided with the terminated employees.

Regarding the argument of redundancy, Zanders points out that his class action suit was filed before the union lawsuits, includes all employees (non-union and unionized), and addresses separate and distinct issues.

According to a majority opinion written by Justice Jeffery Victory regarding the October ruling: “It would defy logic to find the OPSB [Orleans Parish School Board] liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available.”

That’s not true, argues Zanders. The OPSB had the legal obligation to establish a “recall list” that would allow permanent or tenured employees the opportunity to return if jobs were available. They did not do so, Zanders said. Another violation of legal procedure was not giving fired employees priority consideration for reemployment. Their right to due process was violated, and “They didn’t have their full day in court,” he said.

Public school employees were here and ready to work, or had expressed interest to the OPSB in returning from wherever they had evacuated, Zanders said. “I know. I was here. They crowded every meeting,” he said.

And the notion that every teacher who wanted their job back could have gotten it was not the reality, Zanders said — 1,200 teachers were forced to retire to survive, and at least 1,000 did not return because they did have a job. For those who came back, they had lost all status and job protection in the new charter landscape.

Zanders also points to the effects of mass termination on the children. At the time when the traumatized children of New Orleans most needed familiarity and comfort, “their experienced teachers, counselors, and coaches were fired and not there to help stressed and depressed students after America’s worst natural disaster. In the schools taken over by the state, there were more security guards than school counselors. Just this year, the so-called Recovery School District [RSD] settled a class action lawsuit for failing to provide federally-mandated services to Special Education students for the past nine years. As to other school personnel who should have been there for children — cafeteria workers, bus drivers, maintenance staff, and carpenters — were replaced by out-of-state, no-bid private contractors when the school workers needed their jobs the most,” Zanders wrote.

If the state Supreme Court’s dismissal is upheld, the state and the OPSB will not be on the hook to pay an estimated $1 billion.

While the initial promise from the state to the city was that the RSD was only a temporary “turnaround” agent, 10 years later the RSD has entrenched itself, with guaranteed funding, into a long-term role of facilities managers.

Over the past decade, improving the struggling schools for the RSD in reality meant mass-privatization. This year, the RSD in New Orleans became the nation’s very first urban all-charter district. The body of research at this time shows that charter schools, on the whole, are not more academically successful than traditional schools.

Zanders maintains that “State defendants’ ‘failing schools’ argument was no more than a pretext for the politically-motivated takeover of OPSB schools.”

Education scholar Kristen Buras described the changing of laws just months after Hurricane Katrina that allowed the RSD to take over more schools by changing the definition of “failing.”

After Act 35 was passed in November 2005, the RSD was allowed to assume control of 107 of 128 public schools, “enabling charter expansion on a scale never before attempted in Louisiana or elsewhere,” Buras writes in a December article in The Progres­sive. “It was the ultimate public private partnership — state officials serving the interests of private businesses rather than local communities, especially communities of color.”

The OPSB was a primary employer of the African American middle class in New Orleans, Zanders notes. Suddenly, those employees found themselves unable to provide for their families, send their children to college, and pay their mortgages, he said.

Others lacked health care. The lead plaintiff in the case, Gwendolyn Ridgley, died of cancer several years ago. Zanders said he believes earlier treatment might have changed Ridgley’s outcome.

There was also a ripple effect to a myriad of other businesses, Zanders said, after 7,500 people lost their jobs and with that their ability to spend money in their community.

Buras writes: “The fact is, white policymakers and education entrepreneurs were hell-bent on chartering New Orleans public schools, populated almost entirely by Black students and unionized black veteran teachers. . . Not unlike the French Quarter, the city’s public schools would become a playground for outsiders—only instead of spending money, education entrepreneurs would pocket it.”

Zanders said that while he had hoped things would have been resolved by now, he will continue to fight to keep the lawsuit alive as long as it takes. “If it takes 10 years or 20 years to fight for justice—it’s a worthy fight.”

This article originally published in the March 16, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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