Nine years after Katrina, school workers still fighting for justice

NEW ORLEANS – It’s taken nine years, but some 7,000 former New Orleans school workers – teachers, principals, secretaries, social workers, para-professionals and others – may be headed for a multimillion-dollar win of back wages and penalties this fall.

Whether they will get the money depends on the Louisiana Supreme Court, which heard the case on Sept. 4. It set no date for its final decision.

The teachers and the others, all members of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) and most of them minority group members, were all fired after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. State officials seized the opportunity to trash the Orleans school district and the union, an AFT affiliate and then the South’s largest union local.

A state-established Recovery School District now runs most New Orleans schools, almost all of which are charter schools. UTNO recently won union recognition balloting in a second charter New Orleans high school. Meanwhile, the fired teachers, the other workers, the union and their attorneys have pursued justice, winning in the lower courts.

If the state’s high court sides with the workers, they could win up to $750 million in their class-action suit. That’s based on at least three years of lost wages and benefits per worker, plus damages.

The suit claims the board for the Recovery School District did not follow proper procedure in firing UTNO members and did not give them priority in hiring for jobs opening at its schools, all of which are charters. State law requires that when a district is reorganized, past workers get rehiring priority.

In January, the Louisiana appeals court unanimously ruled for the workers, after a lower court did so in 2012. Both said the Recovery District board and the state broke the law.

In his ruling, appellate judge Roland Belsome wrote that the UTNO teachers and other workers were “deprived of their constitutionally protected property right to be recalled to employment.” They suffered from lack of “due process of law,” he said.

“This violation of due process was committed by the Orleans Parish School Board in failing to adhere to its policies in implementing the reduction in force and by the state through the Louisiana Department of Education by failing to follow the mandates” of state law.

“This case has been a difficult and extremely stressful experience for 7,000 employees and their families who suffered after Hurricane Katrina,” Willie M. Zanders Sr., lead attorney for the workers, said after the appeals court ruling earlier this year.

“We pause to pay respect to all former employees who did not live to see this important victory, like class representative Gwendolyn Ridgley, who passed in October 2012. Other class representatives and thousands of employees continue to suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. I am thankful for the patience and prayers of former employees and their families, and encourage them to stay strong.”

“These employees suffered a dual tragedy: Once when the levees broke and another when their livelihoods were taken from them,” UTNO attorney Larry Samuels told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“The RSD refused to allow even tenured public school employees to transfer to the state-run schools, which is the basis for the lawsuit’s claim they had been denied a property right-a job-guaranteed them under the state constitution and various state laws,” the non-partisan non-profit Institute for Southern Studies says.

“The teachers hired to staff these charters tended to be younger, whiter, and from elsewhere. Many came through the Teach for America program, which places recent college graduates in low-income schools and has been criticized even by insiders for its pro-corporate, union-busting agenda. Charter schools have also drawn criticism from teachers unhappy with having to work as at-will employees with few if any job protections and with disparities in pay and little say in how schools are run,” the Institute said.

The fired New Orleans teachers aren’t the only teacher group headed for Louisiana’s Supreme Court. On Sept. 5, the justices will hear a Louisiana Federation of Teachers challenge to right wing GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 rewrite of state education law. Jindal’s term expires next year. He is considering seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nod.

The Louisiana union said Jindal’s prior education package violated the state constitution’s ban on too many unrelated provisions in one law. The education package changed at least nine state laws, and enacted two more. It tied teacher salaries, tenure, promotions and termination to a new evaluation system, changed the powers of local school boards, gave principals and local superintendents more power and changed the reduction-in-force policies – the policies the state and the New Orleans board violated after Katrina.

Photo: UTNO Giving away school supplies as New Orleans goes back to school. Facebook.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.