Fired New Orleans school workers go to US Supreme Court in hopes of reviving lawsuit

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NEW ORLEANS — A lawyer for an estimated 7,500 former New Orleans public school employees who lost their jobs after Hurricane Katrina is going to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of reviving a lawsuit over their firings.

Willie Zanders on Monday released copies of his application to have the high court review the case involving teachers, aides, service workers and others.

Levee failures when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, led to catastrophic flooding that shut down businesses, school and other institutions and prompted the evacuation of the city. The school employees' litigation began later in the year as an effort to prevent dismissals. It progressed as the state moved to take over most New Orleans school from a board plagued by corruption, poor financial management and low performance by students.

The lawsuit evolved into a wrongful termination action that took years to even come to trial.

In 2012, a state district judge ruled in favor of employees who said they were wrongfully fired, awarding more than $1 million to seven original plaintiffs and setting the stage for class-action damages that a lawyer for education officials said could cost the state and the local school board more than $1 billion.

An appellate court largely upheld that ruling. But the state Supreme Court dismissed the suit in October, in part on the grounds that the issues had been dealt with in a separate settlement with the New Orleans teachers' union. The court also found that employees' due-process rights were not violated.

The employee's application to the U.S. Supreme Court presses the case that employees' due process rights were violated because, among other reasons, fired workers were not offered priority consideration for re-employment as schools reopened. That, the employees say, violated local school board policy and state law.

The employees also argue that the settlement in the teacher union case cited in the October opinion involved compromises to which the plaintiffs in the class action suit were not a party.

"In fact, a substantial number of petitioners were not members of any collective bargaining unit, were neither noticed of nor participated in the collective bargaining arbitration, litigation or settlement," the employees' petition said.

The state, through its Recovery School District, still oversees most New Orleans public schools. All of the RSD schools are operated by independent charter groups. The Orleans Parish School Board oversees fewer than two dozen schools. Many of the board's schools are charters as well.

The state takeover and the move to charter schools have been hailed by education reform advocates around the nation as a grand experiment that has led to steady, if incremental and uneven improvements in student performance. The changes still have critics in New Orleans who are skeptical of the improvements and unhappy with the disruption of many neighborhood schools and what they see as unfair treatment of fired employees.

Some of the fired workers have returned to work in public schools. Others have retired or found jobs outside of education.

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