NEW ORLEANS — As much as some may wish otherwise, there is no starting from scratch when rebuilding a city, or a school system.
A judge confirmed that here on Wednesday, ruling that the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education, in laying the groundwork for a school reform movement that has become nationally recognized, illegally fired 7,500 school employees.
The decision by Ethel S. Julien, a federal District Court judge, backed by 45 pages of reasoning and historical narrative, reinforced a long-held counternarrative of the beginnings of that movement.The judge described the state education superintendent, just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, asking for billions of dollars from the federal government and saying that a significant portion would be used to pay out-of-work employees, the vast majority of whom were from Orleans Parish.But in the following months, the state-run Recovery School District won control of nearly all New Orleans schools from the local school board, as well as most of the board’s operating budget. The requested federal funds were directed to the recovery district.In December 2005, the local school board, with few schools and little money in its control, passed a resolution firing 7,500 school employees, who at that time had been on “disaster leave without pay,” an employment status that Judge Julien found in her decision to be “fictional.” She concluded that the state was liable for rendering the local board unable to fulfill its contractual obligations to its workers.
Judge Julien found that state law required the board to show just cause, in writing, before firing a tenured teacher, and that fired employees are entitled to hearings. She also found that a special policy for force reductions at a time of economic crisis required the creation of a “recall list” — designed to refill the vacancies with those who had been laid off — and that even in that situation, employees who were dismissed were entitled to a hearing.None of these were done, and vacancies that arose when schools began to open, most of them charter schools, were filled by outsiders.The class action suit that led to Wednesday’s decision has made sluggish progress through the court system, starting as a petition in October 2005 by several employees denied an opportunity to work at new charter schools here. Only later did the suit reach its current form: a claim for damages by seven former employees, including teachers, administrators and a secretary. The case, or some aspect of it, has reached the State Supreme Court six times, said Willie M. Zanders, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.“We were optimistic during those seven years,” Mr. Zanders said. “We just thought we needed to stay the course. The judicial system was working, and we’ve been very successful.”The plaintiffs’ awards, ranging from $48,000 to $480,000, were calculated as the difference between the money they earned after Katrina and the money they would have earned, in pay and benefits, if they had continued as employees of the school board. If the case survives a likely appeal, the financial ramifications could be substantial, considering there are 6,900 people in the class.“We are studying the opinion and looking at appellate issues,” said Michael H. Rubin, a lawyer representing the defendants.Beyond the financial considerations, however, are issues about the city’s school reform efforts, which have been hailed by many both nationally and in New Orleans but have inspired a profound sense of disenfranchisement in others.“It certainly opens up the broader question of ‘At what cost are we willing to change?’ ” said Andre Perry, the associate director for educational initiatives at the New Orleans-based Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. “It should not be by any means necessary.”