Friday, May 27, 2011

Trial on New Orleans school employee terminations after Hurricane Katrina starts

Unbelievable that Alvarez and Marsal were hired; with their pathetic track record in NYC and elsewhere. 

Their recommendations led to the busing fiasco in NYC when kids were left shivering in the streets in the middle of February; even Joel Klein later admitted this was a disaster. 


Trial on New Orleans school employee terminations after Hurricane Katrina starts

Published: Monday, May 23, 2011, 7:30 AM     Updated: Monday, May 23, 2011, 9:31 AM
Was the mass termination of Orleans Parish public school employees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina legal? That is the issue in a trial starting today in Civil District Court, with seven plaintiffs representing thousands of dismissed workers, from teachers and principals to janitors and bus drivers.
opsb-meeting-post-katrina_1024.jpgAlex Brandon, The Times-Picayune archiveMembers of the Orleans Parish School Board saying the Pledge of Allegiance before a meeting in the city council chambers on Oct. 7, 2005. Three weeks before, the board placed all of its employees on emergency leave, effectively terminating them.
The case before Judge Ethel Simms Julien comes more than five years after the wrath of the storm, and the bitter politics that followed, turned one of the nation's worst public school systems upside down.
Katrina buried more than 80 percent of New Orleans schools in floodwaters. Louisiana officials soon wrested control of most of them from the local school board, and what followed, under the state Recovery School District, was a sweeping reform effort that now has turned nearly three-quarters of the city's public schools into independently run charters.
That post-Katrina political struggle stands at the heart of the case, said Willie Zanders Sr., the lead attorney for the seven plaintiffs, who include three teachers, an assistant principal, a teacher's aide, a school secretary and a social services administrator.
Armed with documents showing how then-state schools Superintendent Cecil Picard grabbed power from the Orleans Parish School Board and cleared the way for mass dismissals, Zanders will argue that the state interfered with the employees' contractual rights and wrongfully terminated them without cause, ignoring state statutory safeguards in the process.
A proper reduction in force, he will say, would have required creation of a recall list, based on seniority, for hiring back available workers as schools reopened.
"The state should have honored the due process rights of employees after Katrina destroyed their lives," Zanders said recently. "A disaster does not equal termination."
Julien ruled in 2008 that the case can be converted to a class action if the first plaintiffs prove their case. About 6,900 people could be eligible for claims under such a suit, Zanders said. The lawsuit names as defendants the state, the state Department of Education, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Zanders said the plaintiffs are seeking lost wages, benefits and damages for emotional distress.
Law cited as move defended
BESE has issued a statement defending the move to charter schools that led to the mass terminations.
"In 2005 the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 35, which applies statewide. That law requires certain schools to be transferred to the Recovery School District if a school district does not meet minimum standards," the statement said. It said the law "gives no discretion" to BESE and the Department of Education: "those failing schools are required to be automatically transferred to the Recovery School District. That happened in Orleans Parish in 2006."
However, Zanders said, Act 35 didn't require that the schools become charter schools or that the school employees be terminated.
"The state has a right to regulate failing schools and take reasonable measures to correct what is wrong, terminate employees for cause," he said. "It should be fair and reasonable and should not be vindictive or retaliatory. ... They did it the wrong way and for the wrong reasons."
Zanders pointed to a Sept. 14, 2005, letter signed by Picard a few weeks before the state issued an "emergency suspension of education laws" that eased the path to converting schools to charter schools, in part by suspending the need for a faculty and staff vote.
In the letter, Picard pleaded with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for nearly $800 million to help pay for salaries and pensions of school employees in hurricane-damaged areas, noting the threat to those employees' "livelihood, health insurance coverage, and just being able to cover basic needs."
Spotlighting tension
Other documents reflect the long-standing tension between Picard and then-Orleans School Board President Torin Sanders. A few months before Katrina, the state forced the local board to hire an outside firm, Alvarez & Marsal, to oversee the school district's finances. The battle came to a head after the storm, when Picard led a push to expand the firm's authority over the district.
Zanders described the state's actions as "retaliatory, vindictive, based on politics."
Three of the seven plaintiffs eventually were rehired, but without seniority or their former pay and benefits, Zanders said.
About 7,500 employees, many of them union members, were terminated after the storm by the School Board, which now employs just 575 people, most of them rehires, according to board data. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, 381 of 400 board employees were rehires. As of 2007, the Recovery School District employed 1,578 people, about half of them previous Orleans Parish School Board workers.
Turning the system around
The RSD under recently departed Superintendent Paul Vallas has received wide praise for rapidly improved test scores at the charter schools, even as critics say increased school choice in the system has left the most vulnerable students further behind and forced special-needs students to struggle to find schools to accommodate them.
Nationally, the system has been painted as a model for reform.
"Rapid-fire reform," said Luis Miron, director of Loyola University's Institute for Quality and Equity in Public Education.
"It was evolutionary, not revolutionary, to the extent Orleans used the opportunity of a perfect storm -- let no crisis go wasted -- to do what other states and localities were going to do inevitably down the road," Miron said. "They did that so they could rid themselves of benefits like bloated pensions and give principals the power to pay at whatever level they wanted. On the professional side there was a severe cost to that."
Pre-Katrina, New Orleans had the highest percentage of black teachers in the country, at 80 percent, Miron said. Still, he said, the gains would have been "much more difficult" with the financial constraints, union resistance and political grime that colored New Orleans school politics before the storm.
The trial is expected to last a month.
John Simerman can be reached at or 504.826.3330.

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