Court Rules in Favor of Teachers Fired After Katrina

What does it mean for New Orleans schools?

The appellate court recently issued a unanimous ruling in favor of the 7,000 OPSB employees (teachers and support workers) who were terminated in the aftermath of Katrina (Oliver vs. OPSB). Educate Now! has received lots of questions regarding the ruling and its impact on the continuing operation of schools, especially since the media has implied that the judgment could bankrupt the school system. Here is what we know.

What did the ruling say? 

  • The appeal court ruled that while the Orleans Parish School Board had the right to execute a reduction in force after Katrina, it failed to create a recall list based on seniority by position – violating its policy and depriving employees of their constitutionally protected property right to be recalled as schools reopened. The court awarded two years of lost wages and benefits, offset by unemployment compensation and other earnings received by the terminated employees during the time in question.

  • It also found that the Recovery School District failed to give former teachers at the schools it took over “priority consideration” as required by law. Specifically, the law requires that when a school is transferred to the RSD, any certified teacher providing classroom instruction must be given “priority consideration” for employment in the same or comparable position. The court ruled that the state is responsible for an extra year of back pay and benefits to eligible teachers who were not given this consideration.
  • While the appeal court remanded the case to Civil District Court for further proceedings, the OPSB or the RSD, or both, can apply to the Louisiana Supreme Court for review. Just how much the current decision, left undisturbed, entitles the terminated employees is unknown, but the number could easily be in the hundreds of millions.

What does this mean for the school system?

Educate Now! asked some legal experts their opinion on what impact this might have.

School boards are “political subdivisions” of the state, and both the Louisiana Constitution and the Governmental Claims Act protect political subdivisions from having their property or assets seized in execution of judgments rendered by state courts. (This protection does not apply when the execution is of a federal court judgment.) Unless there is something really unique about this case (which is unlikely), the only way that that OPSB pays any of this judgment is if it specifically appropriates money for this purpose.

The same principle applies to the judgment as it applies to the state. The legislature would have to make a special appropriation to pay the state’s part of the judgment.

So, assuming this ruling remains intact, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state legislature would have to take specific action to appropriate money towards the judgment. OPSB cannot be forced into bankruptcy, and its assets cannot be seized without its consent.

Unanswered Questions

How would damages be calculated for OPSB?

Even if OPSB had created the recall list, only a small percentage of the fired employees could have been rehired by OPSB. Pre-Katrina, there were 65,000 students in OPSB operated schools. Since Katrina, there are fewer than 3,000 students in OPSB operated schools.

  • Are all fired employees eligible for damages or only the more senior employees who would have been eligible for rehire?
  • Do the teaching positions at OPSB charters, which have independent control in hiring, count in calculating the judgment?

For the RSD?

The law states that teachers must be given priority consideration “at the time of transfer.” At the time of transfer, the schools were closed, and only six re-opened for the remainder of the 2005-06 school year.

  • How long does the “time of transfer” last?

Educate Now! doesn’t know the answers to these questions, but if anyone wants to weigh in with a legal opinion, please send your comments to ljacobs@educatenow.net.

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