This morning the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear arguments in the appeal of Eddy Oliver, et al. v. Orleans Parish School Board, the lawsuit brought on behalf of teachers terminated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In January, the Fourth Circuit of Court Appeal unanimously upheld an earlier ruling that teachers were wrongly terminated by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in March 2006. The appellate court also affirmed that the Recovery School District (RSD) – and, by extension, Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) – were partially at fault for failing to give former OPSB teachers “priority consideration” for employment when staffing the schools they took over after the storm. (For more background and details, see my previous post here.)
I. OPSB lawyers won’t be able to argue their way out of this one.
The plaintiffs’ case against the Orleans Parish School Board begins and ends with one incontrovertible fact: OPSB did not follow the reduction-in-force (RIF) process set forth in the contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans when they laid off tenured teachers in March 2006. To be clear, even if OPSB conducted a RIF, the outcome for the overwhelming majority of teachers wouldn’t have changed: they would have lost their jobs after a drawn-out process. Nevertheless, counterfactuals won’t enter into the Justices’ decision. The only thing that matters is that OPSB didn’t conduct a RIF.
II. The grounds for holding RSD and LDOE liable are unconvincing.
In his opinion [see full text below], Fourth Circuit Judge Roland Belsome held that the RSD/LDOE did not give former OPSB tenured teachers “priority consideration” for employment in the schools taken over after storm:
“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.”
As I’ve noted previously, there are a few problems with Belsome’s argument:
- One of the reasons why the RSD recruited nationally was that New Orleanians were exiled in cities and towns across country for months, and in some cases, for years after the storm.
- There was no preordained plan between RSD/LDOE and Teach For America (TFA) to fill the district’s teaching vacancies with corps members.1 In 2006-07 school year, for example, TFA only brought 12 teachers to the region, most of whom ended up teaching in surrounding parishes.
- On January 12th, just three days before the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion, Judge Belsome tweeted a link to a highly inflammatory anti-TFA article entitled, “How the Corporate Class Is Using Teach for America to Turn K-12 Teaching Into a Temporary, Low-Paying Job,” and asked, “Is this true? Could some locals weigh in on this issue to give us some perspective?” After I called him out for it on Twitter, he deleted the tweet, although I saved a copy (see below).
- While Belsome says there was “absolutely no evidence” former OPSB teachers were given “priority consideration” for employment, a February 2007 article in Education Week noted that 86% of the teachers working in the RSD’s direct-run schools at that time were OPSB veterans.
III. When all is said and done, the legal battle over the layoffs may end up a nine-year exercise in futility.
Immediately after Fourth Circuit’s decision, a claim circulated in the press that plaintiffs stood to reap as much as $1.5 billion in back pay and damages, although that number was later revised downward to $750 million. However, former OPSB member Leslie Jacobs was quick to point out that:
“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.”
Therefore, even if the Justices affirm the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the school board probably won’t be cutting checks to teachers any time soon.
- Again, full disclosure: I worked on staff at Teach For America – Greater New Orleans during this time and was involved in corps member placement discussions. ↩