Covering Louisiana

Jun 20, 2012 5:15 PM by AP

Post-Katrina school firings wrongful

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A Louisiana judge ruled Wednesday that thousands of New Orleans school employees were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina shut down the city and its schools in 2005.

Judge Ethel Simms Julien awarded more than $1 million to seven people who filed the class-action suit against the New Orleans school board and the state. Her decision cleared the way for more damages to be awarded to an estimated 7,000 others.

It was not immediately clear whether the defendants - including the Orleans Parish School Board, the state school board and Department of Education and the state itself - would appeal.

The ruling came almost seven years after levee breaches during the storm caused 80 percent of the city to flood.

With the population scattered and schools in no shape to open, the Orleans Parish School Board dismissed more than 7,000 teachers and other employees.

In more than 40 pages that accompanied the rulings, Julien said the fired teachers and others were deprived of "the vested property interest held in their tenured or permanent employment positions."

It took years for the case to even come to trial. Then, post-trial proceedings, transcription of court proceedings and the compilation of volumes of evidence took months.

The lawsuit is one element in an education story that has brought widespread attention to public schools in New Orleans, where even before Katrina, the system was plagued by corruption, mismanagement and poor student achievement.

In the months after the August 2005 hurricane, the state took over most of the city's public schools, leaving only a few higher-performing schools in the hands of the board. Most of the approximately 70 schools run by the state's Recovery School District in New Orleans have been turned over to independent charter organizations. The local school board has chartered numerous schools as well.

The result has been steady if often incremental progress overall. But there also have been complaints about the state running local schools; allegations from some that local communities don't have enough say in the operation; and complaints that teachers and others who lost their jobs after the storm have been treated unfairly.

"Teachers who had devoted their lives to education found themselves without a job, without health care and without a safety net," state Sen. J.P. Morrell said in an interview earlier this year. "A lot of them felt betrayed."

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