In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many things changed in New Orleans. Almost immediately after the storm, for example, the state fired all of the public school teachers, took over the district, and began privatizing it with charters and stocking them with TFA people. And they did this without any due process.
Eventually, there were only six schools left that the Orleans Parish School Board directly ran, down from more than 120.
Naturally, this pissed off the union, the teachers, and many residents. After all, most of the teachers were veteran teachers with tenure, they were union teachers, and they reflected the culture and diversity of the city. And here were these fresh out of college White kids with no roots and no understanding of the city coming in and only teaching for a couple of years.
So the teachers sued.
And now an appeals court has just handed down a unanimous decision in favor of the teachers. Over 7,000 teachers will be receiving years of back pay and benefits in a settlement that could bankrupt the New Orleans public school system, as well as take a huge chunk of the state budget as well.
So far it's a total victory for the teachers.
The appeals court panel that ruled Wednesday was composed of judges James McKay III, Edwin Lombard, Paul Bonin, Daniel Dysart and Roland Belsome, who wrote the opinion.The ruling could cost upwards of $1.5 Billion dollars.
It said the School Board had the right to institute a reduction in force. But the method used by the board denied teachers their constitutionally protected right to be recalled to employment, the court said. Even with the schools closed, the School Board was legally required to create a "recall list" of teachers who were available to return to work. The board did not, even though it had that information.
Furthermore, the School Board should have used that list to rehire employees for jobs as they opened for the next two years.
"In failing to create the recall list, the appellees lost the opportunity for employment for a minimum of two years," Belsome wrote.
The court's decision did not address the question of whether employees had been properly notified of the layoffs or given a meaningful opportunity to appeal.
The state's role
During the appeals hearings, the judges challenged the plaintiffs to explain why the state was liable. The judges suggested the plaintiffs targeted the state for fear the local School Board wouldn't be good for the money.
Julien, the trial judge, had ruled the state was responsible for two reasons: Officials interfered wrongly with the teachers' employment contracts, and the state was a partner in managing the schools at the time. Cecil Picard, the state education superintendent at the time, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the School Board to overhaul the local board's finances, which resulted in consultants Alvarez & Marsal coming in.
The appeals court overturned both arguments. It said the memorandum of understanding did not create a broader legal partnership, and state law gave Picard the authority to take over New Orleans' schools, which resulted in the layoffs.
However, the appellate judges did think the state had some role: It should have rehired some of the teachers itself for the schools it commandeered for its Recovery School District. The law governing the state district says that when schools are taken over, existing teachers "shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position."
Wrote Belsome: "There is absolutely no evidence that qualified appellees were provided the consideration mandated by the statute. To the contrary, the record clearly shows that the state advertised for these positions nationally and contracted with Teach for America to hire inexperienced college graduates (who) did not have teacher certification."
For that reason, the state is responsible for an extra year of back pay and benefits to teachers who would have met the criteria to be rehired. That's much lighter than Julien's initial ruling, which made the state equally responsible with the Orleans school system for five years of back pay plus benefits.
It all began with the extremely callous and offhand way the teachers were fired. Notices were delivered to teachers' old addresses, sometimes to houses that no longer existed, and they directed teachers wanting to appeal the layoff to come to the School Board's building, which Katrina had destroyed. This happened even though state-appointed consultants Alvarez & Marsal had set up a hotline to collect teachers' evacuation addresses.
Meanwhile, opportunists at the state level quickly took over the city schools and radically expanded the charter system.
As was mentioned before, the original trial judge was much harsher on the state, holding them equally as liable as the district.
While this is a great victory, there is still one more step until it's complete. The state has not yet indicated whether or not it will appeal to the State Supreme Court.