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Fired teachers win in Appeals Court

21st January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that approximately 7,000 teachers and school employees were wrongfully terminated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Teachers filed suit against the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education after they lost their jobs post-Katrina and then were not given first crack at new job opportunities that arose once schools began reopening. A bench verdict from Civil District Court Judge Ethel Simms Julien ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2012 and on Wednesday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal mostly confirmed the ruling. Certain deductions were made related to plaintiffs’ lost wages, but the overall result was a victory for the plaintiffs.

As a result, all tenured employees who were fired after Katrina will be paid two years’ salary by the Orleans Parish School Board. Teachers who meet certain criteria will also be paid an additional year’s salary by the state of Louisiana.

“We are very pleased with the ruling,” said Louisiana Federation of Teachers General Counsel Larry Samuel, who was also part of the plaintiffs’ legal committee. “These employees suffered a dual tragedy, once when the levees broke and another when their livelihoods were taken from them.”

The ruling, passed down by judges James McKay III, Edwin Lombard, Paul Bonin, Daniel Dysart, and Roland Belsome, said it was fair for the School Board to reduce the workforce post-Katrina. However, the teachers had a constitutionally protected right to be recalled to work as soon as opportunities arose for them to do so. The School Board was legally required to create a “recall list” of teachers who were available to return and failed to do this. This list should have been used to rehire teachers and staff to fill any openings over the next two years.

Most of the teachers involved in the lawsuit were members of the United Teachers of New Orleans, an LFT affiliate. When the new job openings were filled, the court found that jobs were primarily given to younger, cheaper candidates. The opinion, written by Belsome, stated, “The record clearly shows that the state advertised for these positions nationally and contracted with Teach for America to hire inexperienced college graduates that did not have teacher certification.”

“New Orleans had a corps of dedicated professionals who wanted nothing more than to teach children,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “The city had a handful of schools that could have been opened within weeks after Hur-ricane Katrina. They were kept shuttered, the state took over the schools, and all the teachers in the city were fired…This ruling paves the way for some semblance of justice for those educators.”

The ruling applies to all employees who had tenure on August 29, 2005. That list includes principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, office administrators, secretaries, social workers, and other support staff.

Justice will come too late for at least one participant in the lawsuit. Gwendolyn Ridgely, one of the seven lead plaintiffs, died in October 2012.

“This case has been a difficult and extremely stressful experience for 7,000 employees and their families who suffered after Hurricane Katrina,” said Willie M. Zanders, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “We pause and pay respect to all former employees who did not live to see this important victory.”

The fight between the plaintiffs and the defendants may not be over. Both the school board and the state can ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the ruling.

The Louisiana Department of Education and Orleans Parish School Board could not be reached for comment by press time.

This article originally published in the January 20, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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