A teacher appreciation week banner from August 2005 remained in the library at George Washington Carver High School when it was photographed 14 months later. (The Times-Picayune archive)
By Sue Sturgis | Originally Published at Facing South. August 27, 2014 3:18 PM
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education saw the disaster as an opportunity to carry out a long-sought goal of dramatically restructuring New Orleans’ public schools. They fired some 7,500 teachers and other school employees — most of them African-American — and delivered a devastating blow to the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), once Louisiana’s largest labor union and its first racially integrated teachers’ union.
But the teachers fought back in court — and they are winning. Next week, oral arguments in their class-action lawsuit over the firings will take place before the Louisiana Supreme Court. The suit claims the school board failed to follow proper procedure in terminating the employees and failed to grant them priority in hiring afterwards.
The lawsuit’s move to the state’s highest court comes following a unanimous January decision by a five-judge panel of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal that held the employees were wrongfully terminated — or, in the court’s words, “deprived of their constitutionally protected property right to be recalled to employment without due process of law.” That decision largely affirmed a 2012 district court ruling that the school board and state of Louisiana violated the employees’ rights.
“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 counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statementissued following the appeals court ruling. “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 School Board employees and their families, and encourage them to STAY STRONG!”
An attorney for the Orleans Parish School Board has estimated that the District Court’s damages could amount to $1.5 billion and the appeals damages half that much, The Times-Picayune reported earlier this summer.