APNewsBreak: Post-Katrina school firings wrongful

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By KEVIN McGILL, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Thousands of New Orleans school employees were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina scattered the populations and shut down the city and its schools, a Louisiana judge ruled Wednesday.

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 in future proceedings.

It was not immediately clear whether the defendants — including the Orleans Parish School Board, the state Department of Education and the state itself — would appeal. An attorney for the school board said he would discuss the matter with his client. The state Attorney General's Office said it would consult with lawyers the state hired for the case.

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

With schools in no shape to open, the Orleans Parish School Board dismissed more than 7,000 employees, while the state seized the opportunity to take over most schools in the long-troubled system.

In 45 pages of reasons that accompanied the ruling, Julien said the fired teachers and others were deprived of "the vested property interest held in their tenured or permanent employment positions." She also said the employees were denied due process that school boards by state law must go through if finances require a reduction in force.

Teacher Gwendolyn Ridgely, now retired and living in New Roads, La., said she feels vindicated by the ruling.

"The community can see now. They know what actually happened to us," said the teacher of 32 years who was trapped in her attic for two days after Katrina.

Julien awarded more than $480,000 to Ridgely, although she said she knows that appeals are likely.

The lawsuit began in late 2005 as an effort to prevent dismissals and evolved into a wrongful termination action. 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.

Roughly 59,000 students were enrolled in New Orleans public schools when the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Enrollment now in the hybrid state and local system is estimated at about 39,000, according to figures provided by state officials Wednesday.

In the months after the August 2005 hurricane, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Legislature moved to place most of the city's public schools in the state Recovery School District, leaving only a few higher-performing schools in the hands of the board. Most of the approximately 70 schools run by the RSD 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 have not had 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 last year. "A lot of them felt betrayed."

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, employees' attorney Willie Zanders has said.

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