Court says school workers improperly terminated

NEW ORLEANS — A state appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that thousands of New Orleans teachers and school employees fired after Hurricane Katrina were denied the constitutional right of due process.

It was not a total victory for the employees. The panel of judges for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal adjusted the lower court’s damage award, saying employees who meet certain requirements will be entitled to two years of back pay and benefits from the Orleans Parish School Board, instead of five years. Some also may be eligible for an additional year from the state, which took over many New Orleans public schools after the storm.

The appeals court said the School Board failed to adhere to its own “Reduction in Force” when it fired workers after the storm. And, the opinion said, the state should have given priority to hiring fired New Orleans teachers for the schools it took over.

“To the contrary, the record clearly shows that the State advertised for these positions nationally and contracted with Teach for America to hire inexperienced college graduates that did not have teacher certification,” the ruling said.

It was not clear Thursday how the ruling will affect the amount of money the state and the School Board might eventually have to pay in the case.

A state judge had awarded more than $1 million to seven lead plaintiffs in the case.

And, in testimony before the appeal court, a School Board attorney had said upholding the initial ruling would put as many as 7,500 school workers in line to receive nearly $1.5 billion in damage payments.

Willie Zanders Sr., lead attorney for the employees, was pleased with the ruling.

“This is a true victory for our clients,” Zanders said in a news release. “This case has been a difficult and extremely stressful experience for 7,000 employees and their families who suffered after Hurricane Katrina.”

Zanders said that number includes principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, central office administrators, secretaries and social workers, as well as employees who provided instructional, administrative, food, security, maintenance, transportation and other services.

“We hope this will mark a positive ending to one of the saddest stories to emerge from the 2005 disaster,” Steve Monoghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers said in a news release. “Teachers and school employees lost family members, their homes and property, and their jobs. Much cannot be replaced, but at least they will have the knowledge that their firing was illegal, and they will have some compensation for their loss.”

A spokeswoman for Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said the office was reviewing the ruling and would not have further comment.

Messages for attorneys and public officials representing the state and the School Board were not returned Thursday afternoon.