Posted: Jun 21, 2012 5:18 PM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - An attorney for the New Orleans school board said Thursday the group should appeal a ruling that thousands of New Orleans teachers were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina, estimating the decision could cost the board $1 billion in potential damage payments.
Civil District Judge Ethel Simms Julien awarded more than $1 million to seven people, but because it is a class-action suit, close to 7,000 other school workers will be able to make claims for awards of various sizes.
"The money's not there anyway," Orleans Parish School Board attorney William Aaron said. "If you're spending that kind of money, you really want it in the classroom. The problem would have been that if teachers continued to be paid, it wouldn't have gone into classrooms. There were no classrooms to go into."
The judge rejected school board arguments that paying teachers who had nowhere to teach, including many in other states, would have violated the Louisiana Constitution's ban on giving away public money.
"I think there's a lot there for a court of appeals to wrap its arms around and to reach an opposite conclusion," Aaron said.
The Orleans board and the state Department of Education both were held liable in the decision. Neither has decided whether to appeal.
"We are disappointed with yesterday's ruling and are considering all options," Education Department spokesman Barry Landry said in an email.
Plaintiffs' attorney Willie Zanders said he was preparing for an appeal.
The ruling came almost seven years after the storm broke levees, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans in August 2005.
With schools in no shape to open, the Orleans Parish School Board dismissed more than 7,000 employees, while the state began taking over most schools in the system, plagued long before Katrina by corruption, mismanagement, terrible test scores and high dropout rates.
The Orleans board now oversees 18 schools, most of them run by independent charter organizations. The state Recovery School District oversees about 70, most of those chartered.
Teachers trying to keep their jobs went to court in late 2005 but wound up with a wrongful termination action that took until last year to come to trial.
The RSD did not automatically rehire Orleans school board employees. Any that were hired were no longer covered by a collective bargaining agreement and often had fewer benefits, Zanders has said.
Joyce Burton, a New Orleans public high school counselor who was fired after the storm, wasn't sure Thursday whether she would be entitled to any money, but she was elated nonetheless.
"It was a slap in our face, being fired like that," she said. "They acted like the hurricane was our fault. They were punishing us for what the storm did or the Corps did. It was foolish."
Burton said she evacuated to a friend's house in northern Louisiana and returned to her Uptown New Orleans home, which did not flood, in October. She said she had received a termination of employment letter in the mail, along with a list of places she could apply for work. The list included schools in Texas.
"It was an insult," she said.
A short time later, Burton said her 87-year-old mother, a teacher who had retired before Katrina, got a letter in the mail asking her to return to work because the city was short on teachers.
"They had run us all out," Burton said. "They fired us and told us to go work somewhere else."