Wednesday, January 22, 2014
The Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal recently upheld part of a judgment for 7,000 New Orleans teachers who were found to have been wrongfully terminated after Hurricane Katrina. The state appellate court found that the teachers were denied a state due process property right to be recalled after Katrina and ruled that the teachers could be awarded up to two years of back pay and benefits. The background is that after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board set up a call center for its teachers to determine which of them could return to work. The call center collected information for 7,000 teachers. That November, the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD) to take control of 102 of the 126 schools in Orleans Parish. Having few schools left, Orleans Parish dismissed the 7,000 teachers in a reduction-in-force. The problem, the 4th Circuit found, was not Orleans Parish's decision, but that state law required it to place the dismissed teachers on a recall list for two years, which the school board failed to do. The right to be on a recall list after a RIF is a substantive right under Louisiana law, the court of appeal found. The appellate court then reversed the lower court's findings for the teachers on tortious interference of contract.
The Louisiana Board of Education was found liable in the suit for a year of back pay and fringe benefits in addition to the judgment against the Orleans Parish School Board for two years of backpay, benefits, and costs--estimated by a state's attorney at $1.5 billion. Some observers are wondering if the suit could bankrupt the public school system. While the former teachers are unlikely to see such a sum, if the judgment will still be substantial if it survives further appellate review. (Before Hurricane Katrina, the school system payroll was around a quarter-billion dollars.) Because over 90 percent of the public schools are now independent charters, some observers, such as author Sarah Carr, wonder if the charter schools must contribute to the judgment. Carr, who wrote a book about New Orleans' schools titled Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America's Children, told NPR on Friday that the post-Katrina RIFs significantly changed the city's teaching force: before Katrina, 75% of the teachers were black to now having more diversity; teachers also changed from tenured to temporary and from locals to newcomers. Read Oliver, et al. v. Orleans Parish School Bd., No. 2012-CA-1520 (Jan. 15, 2014), here.