Appeals court rules 7,000 New Orleans teachers unfairly laid off post-Katrina

by Julianne Hing

New Orleans teachers who lost their jobs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were wrongfully terminated and deserve two to three years of back pay, an appeals court ruled Jan. 16. The ruling affects more than 7,000 teachers who were fired and comes after years of legal wrangling, The Times-Picayune reported.

Willie Zanders
Willie Zanders is lead counsel for the 7,000 victorious teachers.

Katrina catalyzed the ground-up remaking of the New Orleans public school system, of which the mass layoffs of thousands of teachers was just one part. The layoffs also destabilized neighborhoods.

“Beyond the individual employees who were put out, the mass layoff has been a lingering source of pain for those who say school system jobs were an important component in maintaining the city’s Black middle class,” The Times-Picayune reports.

“New Orleans’ teaching force has changed noticeably since then. More young, white teachers have come from outside through groups such as Teach for America. And charter school operators often offer private retirement plans instead of the state pension fund, which can discourage veteran teachers who have years invested in the state plan.

“Though many schools have made a conscious effort to hire pre-Katrina teachers and New Orleans natives, eight years later, people still come to public meetings charging that outside teachers don’t understand the local students’ culture.

Damages could amount to $1.5 billion, which some say could bankrupt the Orleans Parish public school system. “The state is partly responsible for damages, according to Wednesday’s ruling from Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. However, its five-judge panel did reduce the potential damages certified by the District Court: Instead of five years of back pay plus fringe benefits, the appeals court awarded the teachers two to three years of back pay, with benefits only for those employees who had participated in them when they were employed,” according to the Times-Picayune.

New Orleans teachers who lost their jobs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were wrongfully terminated and deserve two to three years of back pay, an appeals court ruled Jan. 16. The ruling affects more than 7,000 teachers.

The court ruled the 7,000 teachers were improperly dismissed because they were later not given preference for rehiring. The ruling validates their anger.

The teachers were initially placed on “disaster leave without pay,” then terminated, a decision that was made final less than seven months after Katrina, on March 24, 2006. “The circumstances of those layoffs rubbed salt in the wound, plaintiffs said: Notices were delivered to teachers’ old addresses, sometimes to houses that no longer existed, and they directed teachers wanting to appeal the layoff to come to the School Board’s building, which Katrina had destroyed. This happened even though state-appointed consultants Alvarez & Marsal had set up a hotline to collect teachers’ evacuation addresses,” reports the Times-Picayune.

“The law governing the state district says that when schools are taken over, existing teachers ‘shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position.’”

New Orleans teacher Ckaris Williams prepares Houston classroom for NOLA students 2005 by Dave Einsel, AP
Ckaris Williams, a New Orleans teacher and Katrina evacuee, prepares her classroom to receive students from New Orleans in Houston, Texas, in 2005. – Photo: Dave Einsel, AP

Plaintiffs’ lead counsel Willie M. Zanders Sr., who represents a class consisting of all employees who were tenured on Aug. 29, 2005, including principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, central office administrators, secretaries, social workers and other employees who provided instructional, administrative, food services, security, maintenance, transportation and other services, issued this statement:

“We are both humbled and grateful that a unanimous, five-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld key rulings in the June 20, 2012, judgment rendered by District Court Judge Ethel Simms-Julien. This is a true victory for our clients.

“This case has been a difficult and extremely stressful experience for 7,000 employees and their families who suffered after Hurricane Katrina. We pause to pay respect to all former employees who did not live to see this important victory, like Class Representative Gwendolyn Ridgley, who passed in October 2012. Other class representatives and thousands of employees continue to suffer physically, emotionally and financially. I am thankful for the patience and prayers of former School Board employees and their families and encourage them to STAY STRONG!”

“It’s a victory for them even though it’s not the final step,” he added, referring to the state and School Board’s right to appeal. Neither has yet made that decision.

Larry Samuels, attorney for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the local union’s parent organization, was thrilled with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling. “These employees suffered a dual tragedy: Once when the levees broke and another when their livelihoods were taken from them.”

Julianne Hing is a reporter and blogger for, where this story first appeared, covering immigration, education and criminal justice. She tweets at @juliannehing. Bay View staff contributed to this story.