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Former New Orleans Teachers Win a Pyrrhic Victory in Court [Updated]

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Update 01/27/14: Leslie Jacobs, former BESE/OPSB member and founder of EducateNow!, says claims that the teachers’ lawsuit could bankrupt the Orleans Parish School Board are unfounded:

“School boards are ‘political subdivisions’ of the state, and both the Louisiana Constitution and the Governmental Claims Act protect political subdivisions from having their property or assets seized in execution of judgments rendered by state courts. (This protection does not apply when the execution is of a federal court judgment.) Unless there is something really unique about this case (which is unlikely), the only way that that OPSB pays any of this judgment is if it specifically appropriates money for this purpose.”   

Read the rest of her commentary here


Last week, Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that found that the Orleans Parish School Board wrongly terminated nearly 7000 tenured teachers in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Although the five-member panel of judges reduced the damages originally awarded to plaintiffs, the decision still leaves the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) – and to a lesser extent the State of Louisiana – on-the-hook for over $1.5 billion $750 million in back pay and benefits, an amount that some say could bankrupt the district.

While attorneys for OPSB and State vowed to appeal the ruling to Louisiana Supreme Court, the chance of a significant reversal of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling seems unlikely. At least in regard to their claim against OPSB, it appears that plaintiffs have the law on their side and it all boils down to the issue of tenure. Tenure confers a “property right” (i.e., the right to a teaching position) for those teachers who receive it – which, prior to Act 1, meant 99% of eligible candidates.* Since Article II of Louisiana’s Constitution states that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, except by due process of law,” any district that sought to remove a tenured teacher faced an uphill climb.

Overview of the onerous due process steps from Stand For Children.

Overview of the onerous due process steps from Stand For Children.

The “due process” afforded tenured teachers usually meant a series of hearings and a lengthy appeals process, and districts had to meet a much higher burden-of-proof that there was cause for dismissal. In addition, when adverse financial circumstances made a so-called “reduction-in-force” (RIF) necessary, districts were required to establish a “recall list” of laid-off tenured teachers, who were legally entitled to any teaching vacancies that became available in the subsequent two years.

The Case Against the Orleans Parish School Board

It goes without saying that the Orleans Parish School Board was already deeply troubled before Katrina. In July 2005, the turnaround firm Alvarez & Marsal, which was brought in to make sense of the district’s Byzantine finances, released a report that warned of an impending fiscal crisis and estimated OPSB would run out of money by September:

“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is [sic] unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”

Katrina only helped push the district to its breaking point. When OPSB finally reconvened more than two weeks after the storm, many expected that board members would set aside their differences and work together, yet those hopes were dashed almost immediately as the board descended into infighting and deadlock.

OPSB’s inability to effectively respond to the disaster, along with their financial challenges, only further convinced officials in Baton Rouge that they needed to act quickly and decisively to address the situation – a sentiment even shared by OPSB member, Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who declared, “[The State] should have taken us over a long time ago. I’d be more than happy to give up my power to get kids educated.” Fahrenholtz got his wish in November, when the State took over all but six OPSB schools and placed them under the control of the Recovery School District (RSD). To OPSB officials, the takeover obviated the need for a RIF, and therefore, the board instead sent termination letters to employees effective March 24th, 2006.

OPSB members at a board meeting in October 2005, including Jimmy Fahrenholtz (at right), who declared: “[The State] should have taken us over a long time ago. I’d be more than happy to give up my power to get kids educated.”

OPSB members at a board meeting in October 2005, including Jimmy Fahrenholtz (at right), who declared: “[The State] should have taken us over a long time ago. I’d be more than happy to give up my power to get kids educated.”

It was OPSB’s failure to conduct a RIF and establish a recall list that Judge Roland Belsome, writing on behalf the Fourth Circuit, cites in his opinion ruling in favor of the plaintiffs [see full opinion below]:

“Based on the clear language of the Board’s Policy, the Recall List is not optional, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the RIF…By failing to compose a recall list, the Board clearly violated its own Policy.”

Although Belsome may be technically correct in asserting that OPSB erred in its decision to dispense with the formal RIF and recall process, the fact remains that very few of those who lost their jobs would have ever regained employment with the district. The takeover of all but a handful of OPSB’s schools meant that the only direct-run schools left under board control were Ben Franklin Elementary School (a.k.a., “Baby Ben”), Eleanor McMain Secondary School and McDonogh #35 Senior High School, which reopened in January 2006, and Mary Bethune Elementary which reopened later. This means there were probably an estimated 220-250 teaching positions in OPSB after Katrina (excluding charters who select their own staff). Therefore, even if OPSB formally RIF’d tenured teachers, ranked them on a recall list, and then placed them in order of seniority, it might have made a difference for only around 3% of the approximately 7000 tenured teachers who were laid off [keeping in mind that also would have meant bumping out less-senior teachers already in those positions].

The Questionable Culpability of the State of Louisiana

On the other hand, Belsome’s basis for holding the State of Louisiana liable for damages is much less convincing. In his opinion, Belsome finds that a “violation of due process was committed…by the State through the Louisiana Department of Education by failing to follow the mandates of Act 35.” As noted above, Act 35 authorized the RSD’s takeover of all but a handful of OPSB schools by amending parts of La. R.S. 17:1990, which originally established the RSD and set the parameters for its governance and operation.

Belsome holds that RSD was legally required to give “priority consideration” to tenured teachers who previously taught in OPSB schools, citing La. R.S. 17:1990(D)(1) which states:

At the time of the transfer of a school to the school district [RSD], any certified teacher with regular and direct responsibility for providing classroom instruction to students who is employed in the transferred school by the prior system shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position by the school district.

Instead Belsome pointedly claims that RSD did nothing of the kind, saying:

“There is absolutely no evidence that qualified Appellees were provided the consideration mandated by the statute. 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.”

There are a few problems with Belsome’s argument that should be noted. To start, there was tremendous uncertainty as to how many people would return to the city in the months after Katrina. Certainly one of the reasons why the RSD recruited nationally was that the “Katrina Diaspora” was indeed national in scope – New Orleanians were exiled in cities and towns across country for months, and in some cases, for years after the storm. At the time the RSD was scrambling to fill positions to staff its schools, a local search alone would have been insufficient.

Second, Belsome clearly misunderstands the trajectory of the relationship between the RSD and Teach For America. I actually worked on staff in TFA’s Greater New Orleans office from 2004 up through the summer of 2006. [Full disclosure: Ironically, I managed the placement of teachers in OPSB schools during the summer of 2005.] I can attest there was never any “collusion” between the RSD and TFA to fill the district’s vacancies with TFA teachers, as others have falsely claimed and it seems Belsome believes. In fact, we almost didn’t bring any new corps members to the region during 2006-07 school year, as it seemed unlikely that there would be positions for them with so many veteran teachers recently released by OPSB. Although we eventually decided to bring in a corps of new teachers in the summer of 2006, it was far smaller than usual: approximately a dozen teachers in total (down from 45-50 in both 2004 & 2005). The fact that the RSD turned to TFA to help staff schools as time went on happened because of the difficulty RSD encountered in recruiting, not because of an overarching plan to replace former OPSB teachers with TFA corps members.

More importantly, there is a perception vs. reality problem with Belsome’s entire argument. Critics of the city’s post-Katrina school reform efforts have long claimed that one of the primary aims of the RSD’s takeover was to replace the city’s traditional teachers with young outsiders drawn from the ranks of organizations like Teach For America and teachNOLA. And, while it’s true that the teaching force in New Orleans today is younger and whiter than it was before the storm, it would be a mistake to presume that has always been the case, especially in the first few years after Katrina.

For example, according to a February 2007 article in Ed Week, 86% of the teachers that had been hired to work in the RSD’s direct-run schools at that time previously worked in the OPSB system. While Belsome stated he was “unable to find any evidence that qualified Appellees were provided the consideration mandated by the statute,” how else would he explain the fact that nearly 9 out 10 of the district’s teachers in 2007 were OPSB veterans?

Interestingly, the same article includes two interviews which further undermine the contention that RSD gave insufficient consideration to veteran teachers. The first was with Karen A. Bryan, a teacher with 10 years experience in OPSB prior to Katrina, who was hired by the RSD to teach 5th grade at Live Oak Elementary in New Orleans East. Bryan told Ed Week, “I believe that if you are qualified and certified, that reapplying for a job is no problem. I really, truly had a desire to come back to help the students.”

Ed Week also spoke with United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) President, Brenda Mitchell, who stated that many former teachers were simply choosing not to apply for teaching positions with the RSD:

“Ms. Mitchell said teachers found insulting the new basic-skills test all applicants to state-run schools must pass, and she warned that many teachers may be reluctant to come to New Orleans without collective bargaining.”

It should be noted that although La. R.S. 17:1990 requires RSD to give “priority consideration” to former teachers, it doesn’t mandate that the district hire them. The statute also doesn’t prohibit the RSD from screening applicants, as the district did with the basic skills test referenced by Mitchell. If anything, the fact that nearly half of all applicants failed the basic skills exam attests to its importance.

Finally, as the Cowen Institute recounted in its history of the RSD, the district faced several challenges in the first two years after Katrina, including the “immense uncertainty” about the number of returning students (which was eventually much higher than initially projected) and the “multitude of operational challenges” posed by the extensive damage to facilities. As a result, the schools RSD “reopened” were, in reality, totally new entities. Although they may have adopted the names of schools that existed before the storm, most were located in new neighborhoods, housed in temporary buildings, and served an entirely new mix of families.

The unavoidable fact is that if the plaintiffs, their lawyers, their union wins, our city’s children will lose as a result.

Whether intended or not, the unavoidable fact remains: if the plaintiffs win, our city’s children will lose.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

To be clear, none of this is intended to minimize the devastating impact that the layoffs no doubt had on the district’s former teachers and their families. Like thousands of other New Orleanians, these teachers returned to the city only to find that their homes and their livelihoods had been washed away by the storm. Although, in retrospect, it’s correct that OPSB should have initiated a formal RIF and recall process in 2005, it’s also true that it would have made little difference for the overwhelming majority of teachers who suddenly found themselves unemployed as a result of Katrina. No matter which side ultimately prevails in this case, the missteps of the past can never be undone.

In the intervening nine years, our city’s public school system has been radically transformed for the better. Whereas previously, parents – in particular, low-income parents – had little choice but to send their children to perennially failing schools, the network of charters that has replaced the old order now provides families with real educational options. Moreover, the autonomy granted to these charters has allowed them to focus on the needs of students rather than the prerogatives of adults, resulting in substantial gains in academic performance.

Nevertheless, if the Fourth Circuit’s ruling stands, it could very well threaten the continued progress of our public school system. The $1.5 billion $750 million in damages sought by plaintiffs would likely bankrupt the district, potentially threatening the financial viability of both OPSB and RSD schools alike. As New Orleans education author and reporter, Sarah Carr, told All Things Considered:

“I don’t really think anybody knows how the details would be ironed out because more than 90 percent of public school children in New Orleans today attend independently run charter schools, so it really is a big question whether or not these independent charters would be liable. And I think even the fired employees and their supporters wouldn’t want this to be severely detrimental to the educations of today’s schoolchildren in the city.”

Whether intended or not, the unavoidable fact remains: if the plaintiffs win, our city’s children will lose.


*Prior to Act 1, teachers by law automatically received tenure on the first day of their fourth year teaching, unless terminated prior to the end of their third year.

** Interestingly, three days before issuing his opinion, Judge Belsome tweeted a link to an extremely biased article about Teach For America (subsequently deleted), which no doubt informed his view of the “contract” between the state and TFA.


Postscript 01/27/14: Interesting John Merrow interview with former OPSB and BESE member Leslie Jacobs, in which she discusses the post-Katrina transformation of the school system [begins at 16:00].

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Louisiana Supreme Court Lays Post-Katrina Teacher Layoff Myths To Rest | PE + CO


On Halloween, the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed a class-action lawsuit arising from the layoffs of over 7,600 New Orleans teachers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The 5-2 decision represented a “stunning, wholesale reversal” for the plaintiffs, who prevailed both at trial and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal; those rulings had found the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and State of Louisiana liable for an estimated $750 million in back pay and damages.
The Supreme Court dismissed the teachers’ lawsuit on the basis of res judicata, the legal doctrine that prohibits the re-litigation of cases that have already been conclusively settled in court. In September 2007, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) reached a settlement with OPSB over the layoffs, in which the school board agreed to pay $7 million in compensation to members of the UTNO bargaining unit (about $1000 per member). In exchange, UTNO agreed to file petitions to withdraw and dismiss all of its pending cases against the district. Since the causes of action asserted in the teachers’ lawsuit arose from the same issues addressed in this earlier “global settlement” between UTNO and OPSB, the Court ruled:

“The UTNO dismissals with prejudice were all rendered by courts of proper jurisdiction, after proper notice, and disposed of the merits in whole or in part. Both a dismissal with prejudice and a settlement are ‘final’ adjudications for the purposes of res judicata.”

However, the high court’s ruling in Eddy Oliver, et al. v. Orleans Parish School Board 1 [see full text of the opinion below] went a step further to definitively settle the broader question of whether OPSB and the State had broken the law, declaring that “neither the OPSB nor the State defendants violated plaintiffs’ due process rights.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s dismissal brought an end to one of the longest-running lawsuits to emerge from Hurricane Katrina.The court’s decision sheds new light on one of the most controversial and misunderstood events to emerge in weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, critics of the RSD’s takeover have sought to portray the layoffs as part of a concerted strategy to disenfranchise community members and replace the school system’s largely African-American teaching corps with outsiders drawn from the ranks of organizations such as Teach For America and teachNOLA.
Although critics provided little evidence to support these accusations, the belief that local and state education officials conspired against the district’s veteran teachers has served as a lingering source of resentment in the community. In recent months, when it appeared that plaintiffs might prevail in court, pundits such as education commentator Andre Perry, suddenly began embracing these conspiracy theories as fact. For example, in an op-ed in The Lens in October, Perry placed the blame for the layoffs on education reformers, while conveniently ignoring his own role in the city’s school reform efforts as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter School network from 2007 to 2011:

“Many in New Orleans believed that locals didn’t have the capacity to make needed changes to the school system…The architects of education reform in New Orleans did not trust the managers, employees or consumers of the prior system.”

In recent months, education commentator Andre Perry has taken up the layoff conspiracy theories.Nevertheless, in his opinion for the majority, Justice Jeffrey Victory provides a full accounting of the facts in the case and methodically picks apart many of the prevailing myths surrounding the layoffs. Below, I address each of these myths and borrow findings from Justice Victory’s opinion to demonstrate that the layoffs were not only legal, but unavoidable given the extensive damage to schools, the mass displacement of city’s population, the precarious financial situation of OPSB, and the RSD’s takeover of all but a handful of the city’s schools.
More Background on the Teacher Layoff Case:Former New Orleans Teachers Win A Pyrrhic Victory In Court – January 21, 2014Three Things To Know About The Teacher Layoff Case – September 4, 2014
Myth #1. Education reformers orchestrated the layoffs in an attempt to get rid of veteran teachers
In a statement under the heading A pre-Katrina political agenda on nopsejustice.com, the website established for participants in the class-action lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs accuse the seven members of the Orleans Parish School Board of carrying out a pre-conceived plan to turn the district’s schools into charters:

“Political newcomers to the OPSB used Hurricane Katrina as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry out an old political agenda to abolish the New Orleans Public School System as it existed before Hurricane Katrina, and replace it with quasi-private, Charter Schools, using public funds.”

In spite of this sinister portrayal, it would be hard to characterize the majority of the school board’s members at that time as pro-charter reformers. In reality, the board had a contentious relationship with reform-oriented State education officials in the months leading up to the storm, so the suggestion that the board endeavored to carry out “an old political agenda to abolish the New Orleans Public School System” doesn’t hold much water.
The Orleans Parish School Board at its first meeting held in city after the storm in October 2005.Regardless, the timeline of events leading up to the layoffs [see timeline below] makes clear that the district’s dire financial situation made the layoffs all but inevitable. By 2005, OPSB had amassed $265 million in debt and the U.S. Department of Education had threatened to withhold federal funding unless an outside firm was hired to manage the district’s finances. As a result, OPSB signed a contract with the turnaround firm Alvarez & Marsal in July 2005. In an initial report released just weeks before Katrina, Alvarez & Marsal auditors exposed the serious financial problems facing the district:

“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”

At its first board meeting after the storm on September 15th, 2005 – before the State made any move to takeover schools – OPSB placed employees on disaster leave without pay “as a result of Hurricane Katrina given the emergency closure of all schools and the subsequent lack of revenues.” OPSB placed teachers on unpaid leave because the district only had enough money to pay employees for their work through August 29th, the day the Katrina hit New Orleans. Thus, by mid-September, OPSB was effectively bankrupt and there was no local tax revenue in the offing with the city all but empty.
On November 30th, Governor Kathleen Blanco signed Act 35 into law, allowing the RSD to takeover 102 of the 126 public schools in Orleans Parish. Of the 24 remaining schools, 7 were uninhabitable, 12 became OPSB-authorized charters, and 5 remained under the direct management of OPSB. As a result, OPSB’s $17 million per month in Minimum Foundation Program funds from the State thereafter shifted to the RSD.
OPSB was now out of money and only in control of five of its original 126 schools. The district had no other choice but to begin the layoff process. The same day Governor Blanco signed Act 35 into into law, Acting Superintendent Ora Watson issued a press release which advised all OPSB employees that they were terminated, saying the board’s “actions became necessary, first by the Katrina disaster, and then by the State having recently created a recovery district with responsibility for most of the schools that had been under [OPSB] control.”
Myth #2. There were teaching positions available for returning teachers after the storm
The catastrophic levee failures during Hurricane Katrina led to the flooding of nearly 80% of the City of New Orleans. An initial investigation of New Orleans’ 126 schools after the storm found that 118 received serious wind and/or flood damage, and of those, 80 buildings would likely need to be torn down and rebuilt. Only eight schools in the entire district survived the storm unscathed.
Levee failures during Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of city and left only eight public schools undamaged.Given the extensive damage to the city’s schools and the mass displacement of city’s population, it was clear almost immediately that most of the district’s 7000 teachers would not have jobs to return to in the weeks and months after the storm. In fact, 10 years later, the city’s public school enrollment stands at 45,000 45,608 – far less than the approximately 60,000 students enrolled in OPSB schools in August 2005.
In his opinion, Justice Victory points out that only a fraction of the teachers represented in the class-action lawsuit could have feasibly regained employment in the district:

“Due to the unique issues presented by Hurricane Katrina, had a recall list been in place, there were only 526 positions available for the over 7,000 class members here. There is no legal theory which would allow over 7,000 teachers to recover back pay when only 526 could even theoretically be able to show they would have been hired if a recall list had been in place.”

In short, even if OPSB had been able to conduct a proper recall process, less than 10% of the district’s teachers would have secured a teaching position during the recall period. As Justice Victory noted, “It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available.”
Myth #3. State officials plotted to fill teaching positions with Teach For America corps members
Prior to the storm, Teach For America – Greater New Orleans placed the majority of its corps members in New Orleans, although smaller contingents taught in schools in Jefferson and St. John the Baptist Parishes. When schools reopened in Jefferson and St. John a few weeks after the storm, corps members working in those parishes returned to their classrooms. However, corps members working in OPSB schools were laid off along with the rest of the district’s teachers. As a result, approximately 30 corps members relocated to Texas to help open New Orleans West College Prep, a K-8 charter school that served over 350 New Orleans students evacuated to Houston after Katrina. Several dozen more corps members were recruited to work in FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers across Louisiana.
Several dozen Teach For America corps members worked in FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers after Hurricane Katrina.As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I worked on staff at Teach For America – Greater New Orleans from June 2004 to June 2006, and I was involved in a number of internal staffing and placement discussions in the months after Hurricane Katrina. In the first half of 2006, it was unclear how many schools would reopen in the fall due to the tremendous uncertainty about when (or if) families would begin returning to the city. As a result, we decided to bring in only a dozen new corps members to the region for 2006-07 school year, down from approximately 70 in 2005.
As Justice Victory notes in his opinion, the RSD didn’t sign a contract with Teach For America until the 2007-08 school year, when the district hired approximately 125 corps members. The fact that the RSD turned to TFA to help staff schools as time went on happened because of the difficulty RSD encountered in staffing schools, not because of a behind-the-scenes plan to replace former OPSB teachers with TFA corps members.
Myth #4. The Recovery School District was legally required to hire tenured teachers who were laid off by OPSB
Plaintiffs claimed the State of Louisiana violated their due process rights because the RSD did not give preferential treatment to OPSB teachers when hiring for positions in the schools taken over in November 2005. In arguing that the RSD was obligated to give hiring preference to these teachers, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to a clause in Act 9, the original state takeover law passed in 2003, which states:

“At the time of the transfer of a school to the school district [RSD], any certified teacher with regular and direct responsibility for providing classroom instruction to students who is employed in the transferred school by the prior system shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position by the school district.”

The State’s culpability hinged on the meaning of “priority consideration,” a vague term which had never been clearly defined. In its opinion, the Court stated that “priority consideration” is exactly that – just consideration, no more, no less:

“The RSD is not required to hire any of these teachers, and is not required to hire any of these teachers in preference to any other applicants: it must simply give them priority ‘consideration.’ There is no due process claim in a procedure concerning employment that does not require a mandated outcome.”

As to the question of whether the RSD gave “priority consideration” to former OPSB teachers as required by law, Justice Victory points out that the RSD did in fact give preference to former OPSB teachers who had passed an initial screening test:

“The evidence showed that the RSD did give priority consideration to former OPSB teachers pursuant to a process whereby all applicants took a skills assessment, and those OPSB employees who passed were placed in a separate pool to be considered before any of the non-OPSB employees who passed the test.”

So Where Does That Leave Us?
Like tens of thousands of New Orleanians in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina, the city’s teachers were left asking the unanswerable question posed to everyone whose life is suddenly and irreversibly altered in a disaster: Why did this happen to me? After all, it’s a bewildering experience to realize how quickly the vicissitudes of fate can snatch it all away from you: your house, your job, your family, your neighbors, all washed away in a deluge of biblical proportions.
So when the teachers union and their lawyers came forward with a conspiratorial narrative that accused state and local officials of stealing their jobs – and more importantly, gave teachers a means to seek redress for that loss – it’s understandable why so many people bought into the story. In some ways, it’s easier to believe that those in power conspired to take your job than it is to accept that a confluence of factors outside of anyone’s control led to that painful result.
Sadly, the myths about the teacher layoffs have been used by opponents of the city’s post-Katrina school reforms as a means to divide the community among racial, generational, and socio-economic lines. They have portrayed reformers as blaming veteran teachers for all the problems in the school system before the storm. They have attempted to gain political clout by exploiting people’s pain.
So let’s clarify one last important point: Ten years after the Katrina, the city’s public schools have vastly improved, but not because so many veteran educators lost their jobs. They’ve improved because the city’s broken public education system, a system that had long failed both students and teachers, was finally washed away.
Timeline of Teacher Layoff Events:

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View this document on Scribd

Interestingly enough, lead plaintiff Eddy Oliver was a long-time operative in Congressman Bill Jefferson’s political machine, the Progressive Democrats. He was appointed as principal of Morial Elementary in exchange for his help getting Betty Jefferson elected to OPSB in 1993. He later testified in court that served as the “front man” for a consulting company run by Mose Jefferson and “routinely signed blank checks and falsified documents at Jefferson’s request, no questions asked.” 

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Peter Cook

Posted on 11 November 201413 January 2015 by Peter Cook comment image?iv=28″ title=”” rel=”nofollow”> On Halloween, the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed a class-action lawsuit arising from the layoffs of over 7,600 New Orleans teachers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The 5-2 decision represented a “stunning, wholesale reversal” for the plaintiffs, who prevailed both at trial and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal; those rulings had found the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and State of Louisiana liable for an estimated $750 million in back pay and damages.The Supreme Court dismissed the teachers’ lawsuit on the basis of res judicata, the legal doctrine that prohibits the re-litigation of cases that have already been conclusively settled in court. In September 2007, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) reached a settlement with OPSB over the layoffs, in which the school board agreed to pay $7 million in compensation to members of the UTNO bargaining unit (about $1000 per member). In exchange, UTNO agreed to file petitions to withdraw and dismiss all of its pending cases against the district. Since the causes of action asserted in the teachers’ lawsuit arose from the same issues addressed in this earlier “global settlement” between UTNO and OPSB, the Court ruled:

“The UTNO dismissals with prejudice were all rendered by courts of proper jurisdiction, after proper notice, and disposed of the merits in whole or in part. Both a dismissal with prejudice and a settlement are ‘final’ adjudications for the purposes of res judicata.”

However, the high court’s ruling in Eddy Oliver, et al. v. Orleans Parish School Board 1 [see full text of the opinion below] went a step further to definitively settle the broader question of whether OPSB and the State had broken the law, declaring that “neither the OPSB nor the State defendants violated plaintiffs’ due process rights.”The Louisiana Supreme Court’s dismissal brought an end to one of the longest-running lawsuits to emerge from Hurricane Katrina.The court’s decision sheds new light on one of the most controversial and misunderstood events to emerge in weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, critics of the RSD’s takeover have sought to portray the layoffs as part of a concerted strategy to disenfranchise community members and replace the school system’s largely African-American teaching corps with outsiders drawn from the ranks of organizations such as Teach For America and teachNOLA.Although critics provided little evidence to support these accusations, the belief that local and state education officials conspired against the district’s veteran teachers has served as a lingering source of resentment in the community. In recent months, when it appeared that plaintiffs might prevail in court, pundits such as education commentator Andre Perry, suddenly began embracing these conspiracy theories as fact. For example, in an op-ed in The Lens in October, Perry placed the blame for the layoffs on education reformers, while conveniently ignoring his own role in the city’s school reform efforts as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter School network from 2007 to 2011:

“Many in New Orleans believed that locals didn’t have the capacity to make needed changes to the school system…The architects of education reform in New Orleans did not trust the managers, employees or consumers of the prior system.”

In recent months, education commentator Andre Perry has taken up the layoff conspiracy theories.Nevertheless, in his opinion for the majority, Justice Jeffrey Victory provides a full accounting of the facts in the case and methodically picks apart many of the prevailing myths surrounding the layoffs. Below, I address each of these myths and borrow findings from Justice Victory’s opinion to demonstrate that the layoffs were not only legal, but unavoidable given the extensive damage to schools, the mass displacement of city’s population, the precarious financial situation of OPSB, and the RSD’s takeover of all but a handful of the city’s schools.More Background on the Teacher Layoff Case:Former New Orleans Teachers Win A Pyrrhic Victory In Court – January 21, 2014Three Things To Know About The Teacher Layoff Case – September 4, 2014Myth #1. Education reformers orchestrated the layoffs in an attempt to get rid of veteran teachersIn a statement under the heading A pre-Katrina political agenda on nopsejustice.com, the website established for participants in the class-action lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs accuse the seven members of the Orleans Parish School Board of carrying out a pre-conceived plan to turn the district’s schools into charters:

“Political newcomers to the OPSB used Hurricane Katrina as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry out an old political agenda to abolish the New Orleans Public School System as it existed before Hurricane Katrina, and replace it with quasi-private, Charter Schools, using public funds.”

In spite of this sinister portrayal, it would be hard to characterize the majority of the school board’s members at that time as pro-charter reformers. In reality, the board had a contentious relationship with reform-oriented State education officials in the months leading up to the storm, so the suggestion that the board endeavored to carry out “an old political agenda to abolish the New Orleans Public School System” doesn’t hold much water.The Orleans Parish School Board at its first meeting held in city after the storm in October 2005.Regardless, the timeline of events leading up to the layoffs [see timeline below] makes clear that the district’s dire financial situation made the layoffs all but inevitable. By 2005, OPSB had amassed $265 million in debt and the U.S. Department of Education had threatened to withhold federal funding unless an outside firm was hired to manage the district’s finances. As a result, OPSB signed a contract with the turnaround firm Alvarez & Marsal in July 2005. In an initial report released just weeks before Katrina, Alvarez & Marsal auditors exposed the serious financial problems facing the district:

“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”

At its first board meeting after the storm on September 15th, 2005 – before the State made any move to takeover schools – OPSB placed employees on disaster leave without pay “as a result of Hurricane Katrina given the emergency closure of all schools and the subsequent lack of revenues.” OPSB placed teachers on unpaid leave because the district only had enough money to pay employees for their work through August 29th, the day the Katrina hit New Orleans. Thus, by mid-September, OPSB was effectively bankrupt and there was no local tax revenue in the offing with the city all but empty.On November 30th, Governor Kathleen Blanco signed Act 35 into law, allowing the RSD to takeover 102 of the 126 public schools in Orleans Parish. Of the 24 remaining schools, 7 were uninhabitable, 12 became OPSB-authorized charters, and 5 remained under the direct management of OPSB. As a result, OPSB’s $17 million per month in Minimum Foundation Program funds from the State thereafter shifted to the RSD.OPSB was now out of money and only in control of five of its original 126 schools. The district had no other choice but to begin the layoff process. The same day Governor Blanco signed Act 35 into into law, Acting Superintendent Ora Watson issued a press release which advised all OPSB employees that they were terminated, saying the board’s “actions became necessary, first by the Katrina disaster, and then by the State having recently created a recovery district with responsibility for most of the schools that had been under [OPSB] control.”.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816{padding:0px;margin:0;padding-top:1em!important;padding-bottom:1em!important;width:100%;display:block;font-weight:bold;background-color:#eaeaea;border:0!important;border-left:4px solid #E74C3C!important;box-shadow:0 1px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.17);-moz-box-shadow:0 1px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.17);-o-box-shadow:0 1px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.17);-webkit-box-shadow:0 1px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.17);text-decoration:none}.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816:active,.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816:hover{opacity:1;transition:opacity 250ms;webkit-transition:opacity 250ms;text-decoration:none}.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816{transition:background-color 250ms;webkit-transition:background-color 250ms;opacity:1;transition:opacity 250ms;webkit-transition:opacity 250ms}.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816 .ctaText{font-weight:bold;color:#E74C3C;text-decoration:none;font-size:16px}.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816 .postTitle{color:#000;text-decoration:underline!important;font-size:16px}.u0af1929f9e627cf7259f5ad6476c4816:hover .postTitle{text-decoration:underline!important}RELATED:  Why is LAE’s President Insulting Holly Boffy?Myth #2. There were teaching positions available for returning teachers after the stormThe catastrophic levee failures during Hurricane Katrina led to the flooding of nearly 80% of the City of New Orleans. An initial investigation of New Orleans’ 126 schools after the storm found that 118 received serious wind and/or flood damage, and of those, 80 buildings would likely need to be torn down and rebuilt. Only eight schools in the entire district survived the storm unscathed.Levee failures during Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of city and left only eight public schools undamaged.Given the extensive damage to the city’s schools and the mass displacement of city’s population, it was clear almost immediately that most of the district’s 7000 teachers would not have jobs to return to in the weeks and months after the storm. In fact, 10 years later, the city’s public school enrollment stands at 45,000 45,608 – far less than the approximately 60,000 students enrolled in OPSB schools in August 2005.In his opinion, Justice Victory points out that only a fraction of the teachers represented in the class-action lawsuit could have feasibly regained employment in the district:

“Due to the unique issues presented by Hurricane Katrina, had a recall list been in place, there were only 526 positions available for the over 7,000 class members here. There is no legal theory which would allow over 7,000 teachers to recover back pay when only 526 could even theoretically be able to show they would have been hired if a recall list had been in place.”

In short, even if OPSB had been able to conduct a proper recall process, less than 10% of the district’s teachers would have secured a teaching position during the recall period. As Justice Victory noted, “It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available.”Myth #3. State officials plotted to fill teaching positions with Teach For America corps membersPrior to the storm, Teach For America – Greater New Orleans placed the majority of its corps members in New Orleans, although smaller contingents taught in schools in Jefferson and St. John the Baptist Parishes. When schools reopened in Jefferson and St. John a few weeks after the storm, corps members working in those parishes returned to their classrooms. However, corps members working in OPSB schools were laid off along with the rest of the district’s teachers. As a result, approximately 30 corps members relocated to Texas to help open New Orleans West College Prep, a K-8 charter school that served over 350 New Orleans students evacuated to Houston after Katrina. Several dozen more corps members were recruited to work in FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers across Louisiana.Several dozen Teach For America corps members worked in FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers after Hurricane Katrina.As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I worked on staff at Teach For America – Greater New Orleans from June 2004 to June 2006, and I was involved in a number of internal staffing and placement discussions in the months after Hurricane Katrina. In the first half of 2006, it was unclear how many schools would reopen in the fall due to the tremendous uncertainty about when (or if) families would begin returning to the city. As a result, we decided to bring in only a dozen new corps members to the region for 2006-07 school year, down from approximately 70 in 2005.As Justice Victory notes in his opinion, the RSD didn’t sign a contract with Teach For America until the 2007-08 school year, when the district hired approximately 125 corps members. The fact that the RSD turned to TFA to help staff schools as time went on happened because of the difficulty RSD encountered in staffing schools, not because of a behind-the-scenes plan to replace former OPSB teachers with TFA corps members.Myth #4. The Recovery School District was legally required to hire tenured teachers who were laid off by OPSBPlaintiffs claimed the State of Louisiana violated their due process rights because the RSD did not give preferential treatment to OPSB teachers when hiring for positions in the schools taken over in November 2005. In arguing that the RSD was obligated to give hiring preference to these teachers, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to a clause in Act 9, the original state takeover law passed in 2003, which states:

“At the time of the transfer of a school to the school district [RSD], any certified teacher with regular and direct responsibility for providing classroom instruction to students who is employed in the transferred school by the prior system shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position by the school district.”

The State’s culpability hinged on the meaning of “priority consideration,” a vague term which had never been clearly defined. In its opinion, the Court stated that “priority consideration” is exactly that – just consideration, no more, no less:

“The RSD is not required to hire any of these teachers, and is not required to hire any of these teachers in preference to any other applicants: it must simply give them priority ‘consideration.’ There is no due process claim in a procedure concerning employment that does not require a mandated outcome.”

As to the question of whether the RSD gave “priority consideration” to former OPSB teachers as required by law, Justice Victory points out that the RSD did in fact give preference to former OPSB teachers who had passed an initial screening test:

“The evidence showed that the RSD did give priority consideration to former OPSB teachers pursuant to a process whereby all applicants took a skills assessment, and those OPSB employees who passed were placed in a separate pool to be considered before any of the non-OPSB employees who passed the test.”

So Where Does That Leave Us?Like tens of thousands of New Orleanians in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina, the city’s teachers were left asking the unanswerable question posed to everyone whose life is suddenly and irreversibly altered in a disaster: Why did this happen to me? After all, it’s a bewildering experience to realize how quickly the vicissitudes of fate can snatch it all away from you: your house, your job, your family, your neighbors, all washed away in a deluge of biblical proportions.So when the teachers union and their lawyers came forward with a conspiratorial narrative that accused state and local officials of stealing their jobs – and more importantly, gave teachers a means to seek redress for that loss – it’s understandable why so many people bought into the story. In some ways, it’s easier to believe that those in power conspired to take your job than it is to accept that a confluence of factors outside of anyone’s control led to that painful result.Sadly, the myths about the teacher layoffs have been used by opponents of the city’s post-Katrina school reforms as a means to divide the community among racial, generational, and socio-economic lines. They have portrayed reformers as blaming veteran teachers for all the problems in the school system before the storm. They have attempted to gain political clout by exploiting people’s pain.So let’s clarify one last important point: Ten years after the Katrina, the city’s public schools have vastly improved, but not because so many veteran educators lost their jobs. They’ve improved because the city’s broken public education system, a system that had long failed both students and teachers, was finally washed away.Timeline of Teacher Layoff Events: var timeline_config={width:”100%”,height:”650″,source:”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AmvtdTNlL6rPdG12N0puZW9zWHhsaFAwbDZTMVh1OVE&amp;output=html”,embed_id:”timeline-embed”,start_at_end:false,start_at_slide:”0″,start_zoom_adjust:””,hash_bookmark:false,font:”PT”,debug:false,lang:”en”,maptype:”toner”,script_path:”http://peterccook.com/wp-content/plugins/knight-lab-timelinejs/js/”}View this document on Scribd
Interestingly enough, lead plaintiff Eddy Oliver was a long-time operative in Congressman Bill Jefferson’s political machine, the Progressive Democrats. He was appointed as principal of Morial Elementary in exchange for his help getting Betty Jefferson elected to OPSB in 1993. He later testified in court that served as the “front man” for a consulting company run by Mose Jefferson and “routinely signed blank checks and falsified documents at Jefferson’s request, no questions asked.”  comment image?iv=28″ title=”” rel=”nofollow”> Related GET PE+CO UPDATES IN YOUR INBOXFill out the form below to subscribe to our newsletter and you will receive notifications of new posts by email. We will never share your information or send you unsolicited emails. Subscribe Please check your email inbox to confirm. Powered by&nbspRapidology

jonpelto
jonpelto

Mr. Cook,

Thank you for picking up on my blog about the issue and adding in your comments – http://jonathanpelto.com/2014/01/23/paul-vallas-played-pivotal-role-case-cost-new-orleans-louisiana-1-5-billion/

I always welcome a fellow blogger to the discussion and I’ve read through your blog and disagree on a number of accounts.

I don’t think the New Orleans teachers won a “Pyrrhic Victory in Court.” While the case may very well make it to the Supreme Court (or not) the trial judge and the Appeals Court appear to have made sound decisions regarding law and precedent. It appears the teachers will will the class action lawsuit and the will receive some sort of financial payment.

More importantly, the lower and appeals courts make it very clear that the state holds some liability in the case. I recognize that Mr. Vallas was not hired until after the teachers were fired, but the “portfolio” charter school system was under the direct control of Mr. Vallas and that the fact that they were charter schools and had independent hired systems does not negate the RSD’s responsibility to institute a system in which laid off teachers are rehired. The contact agreement with the RSD could have and should have mandated that New Orleans teachers be given hiring preference.

In fact, and now that you’ve raised the issue, I’ll send it to the plaintiff’s lawyers, Vallas appears to have learned his lesson. In Bridgeport he used a “turnaround model” that brought in a charter school operator to run a public school but left the local teacher contract in place. The process allowed the charter school company to take over hiring decisions but maintained employees as union members and any teacher not chosen by the charter school company was guaranteed a job at another district school.

If the case you address was brought under state law, the state might have succeeded in claiming that it was not responsible for the fall out from the Parishes decision, but under federal law, where the issue was both constitutional and the fair application of state law the court, I believe, correctly identified the state as a responsible party.

Vallas played an extraordinarily important role in implementing the RSD’s decision to create a system in which the teacher’s constitutional and contractual rights were violated.

Thankfully we live in a land where we have three independent branches of government so that no single branch can become to powerful.

This is a case that should be used to teach contractual rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States as well as Common Law.

The fact that the teachers have now one at the trail and appellate level is hardly Pyrrhic, in fact, it is is exactly opposite.

It proves that even in these dark times, some constitutionally protect rights remain intact.

Leo Laventhal
Leo Laventhal

Peter Cook mixes up two separate stories.
The teachers in the New Orleans public schools were summarily and illegally fired after Katrina. Judges have now upheld the initial ruling. Mr. Cook himself admits that dismissal of the entire body of teachers and the willful ignoring of legal tenure and due process was wrong. But he adds, as if it should have influenced the decision, that most of those teachers were lousy, that they weren’t going to return anyway, and that even if teachers had wanted to there would not have been jobs for them.
He then alleges that paying restitution would take away from the public, mainly charter schools that the thinks are doing a better job.
People can and certainly will debate for a long time whether charters are the panacea for the long suffering public schools. It is not clear, however, that the replacement of neighborhood schools, publicly elected schoolboards, and local, experienced teachers by educational entrepreneurs and untrained rookies controlled by not fully accountable unelected boards of directors will be a solution to the problems of public education. That jury is still out. But whatever the court of history decides on the great New Orleans education experiment, the validity of the judges’ decision stands.
How much money the dismissed teachers will actually receive and when is another story. For now we are dealing with a moral victory, not a financial coup.

liberalteacher

I guess you only like the constitution when it conveniences you. Teaching is a career and not a factory job. For most of us, it is a calling and not a weigh station to something better. Every professional career has due process procedures before someone loses his or her career. If doctors are brought up on charges, there is due process. The same with lawyers. Why should teachers be any different? You also do not believe in the validity of contracts. There is a very simple premise in our capitalist system–a contract is a contract is a contract. But for you and your TFA buddies, that rule should not apply to teachers. You believe there are only bad teachers, but guess what, there are also bad administrators. Isn’t it funny that the states that have the highest NAEP scores are those that have strong unions as well as strong due process rights. Teachers, as educated professionals, should have the right to disagree with administration without repercussion as long as they are not insubordinate. Teachers should not be fired having charges trumped up because of their political beliefs, race, sex, sexual orientation, age or teaching philosophy if they do an effective job. Here is an excellent example of why we need due process. A good friend of mine who was once New York Teacher of the Year and considered a master teacher (who also teaches university courses in reading), began to be harassed by a new young principal. This administrator wanted her to retire so he could hire someone younger. After he moved her room seven times in three months, she refused. He brought her up on charges of insubordination and wanted her fired. There was a 3020a due process hearing in which he obviously lost because it was proven that his goal was for her to retire. He even asked her when she was going to retire within days of becoming principal of the school. By the way, because of this and several other discriminatory incidents by this principal, he was removed a year later–and my friend is still teaching at age 64. By the way, she is well loved and well respected by the new principal. Oh, I forgot, she told me she has had three observations under our new evaluation system. So far all her lessons have been rated as highly effective!!!! To conclude, your state with all your so-called reforms still has an educational system just a cut above a third world country. From the days of Huey Long to the present, corruption and the trampling of civil rights have been the order of the day. But Louisiana is still part of this United States and there is still a constitution that must be obeyed.

Charters

Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education

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On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.

Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.

For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.


Dear Board Members,

In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.

On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.

Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.

These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.

In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.

Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.

Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.

If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:

Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Sincerely,

Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Screen-Shot-2017-06-10-at-02.52.38
Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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