Post-Katrina resentment revived by court's ruling in case of fired Orleans school employees

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NEW ORLEANS — It was an abrupt reversal of fortune that stirred lingering resentment and fresh tears more than nine years after Hurricane Katrina: Louisiana's Supreme Court overturned rulings from two lower courts and tossed out a lawsuit that said roughly 7,500 New Orleans public school employees were wrongfully fired after levee failures during the 2005 storm led to inundation of the city.

"This is extremely painful for me and everyone sitting here," Antoinette Aubry, a social work supervisor for the Orleans Parish School Board when Katrina hit, said recently. She was among a group of the fired employees gathered to discuss the suit at the New Orleans home of Walter Goodwin, a fired principal and one of the original plaintiffs in the case that has dragged on for nearly a decade.

"I have nightmares about this," Aubry said, sobbing. "Because I know it didn't have to happen and it did. I will never be able to forget this until some kind of justice is done."

Aubry eventually was able to go back to work at a public school but at what she considers an "entry level" job despite years of experience and a doctorate. Others have retired or found jobs inside or outside of education.

The firings came as the state took over most New Orleans public schools after the storm, the first step toward turning them over to independent charter organizations. The move has been largely hailed around the nation as a grand experiment that led to steady, if incremental and uneven, improvement in performance.

Still, the changes have their skeptics who are upset by the disruption of some neighborhood school traditions and who — in the case of fired employees like Lois Lockhart — feel betrayed.

"Yes, money was a factor," said Lockhart, another named plaintiff in the class-action. "But during these nine years, in this ninth year right now, it's the principal of the thing."

The litigation began in late 2005 as an effort to prevent dismissals. It evolved into a wrongful termination action. It took years for the case to even come to trial.

Victory came first in 2012, when state District Judge Ethel Simms Julien said seven people who filed the suit against the New Orleans school board and the state were entitled to damages totaling more than $1 million. Her decision in the class action suit meant more damages were due to well over 7,000 others. By one attorney's estimate, that would likely cost the state and local board more than $1 billion.

An appeals court largely upheld the district court but the Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision threw out the suit on Oct. 31.

The high court rejected the suit largely on the grounds that the issues had been dealt with in a separate settlement with the New Orleans teachers' union. "It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available," Justice Jeffrey Victory added in the majority opinion.

Attorney Willie Zanders and other attorneys for the workers say the union settlement was a separate matter and did not cover all of the fired employees. They also say hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid the state received for schools should have been used to help the fired employees.

Goodwin, who said he has three children who also lost jobs in the system after Katrina, sees the firings and state takeover as a power grab by outside interests.

"It's all about money, power and governance," said Goodwin, who also said he believes racism played a part in the state's eagerness to take over the schools in the majority black city.

Ann Duplessis, an African-American former state senator who handled legislation leading to the takeover, says the motivation was to improve schools. She acknowledges the pain of the fired employees, but says it couldn't be avoided.

"It wasn't the school board or the state that fired the teachers," she said. "It was Katrina."

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