OPSB blames co-defendant as teachers seek compensation for 2006 mass firings

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

One defendant — the Orleans Parish School Board — tried repeatedly to blame a co- defendant – the state Department of Education — as school board employees who were terminated after Katrina made their case against both parties in Civil District Court on Wednesday.

It was the third day in the trial of a lawsuit in which seven plaintiffs accuse the school board and the state Department of Education of mass firings without just cause in early 2006.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Willie Zanders Sr, is arguing the case on procedural grounds. A proper termination would have entailed creation of a recall list from which employees could have been hired back based on seniority as schools reopened.

If plaintiffs are successful, some 6,900 former School Board employees, ranging from principals to teachers to bus drivers and janitors, could be eligible for lost wages, benefits and damages due to emotional distress.

In Katrina’s aftermath, the state largely took over a public school system that had gone broke both academically and financially before the storm. Failing schools were placed in the Recovery School District which today has turned most of them into non-unionized charter schools. With few schools left under its control, the OPSB dismissed most of its employees, effectively canceling its contract with the teachers union.

In its effort to shrug blame off onto the state, the School Board on Wednesday harked back to the pre-Katrina decision that placed Alvarez & Marsal, a financial turnaround firm, in charge of the bankrupt city school system’s finances.

The decision limited the OPSB’s ability to make administrative decisions, defense witnesses contended, among them current school board Superintendent Darryl Kilbert, former school board member Cynthia Cade, and former school board president, the Rev. Torin Sanders.

They said that the decision to hire Alvarez & Marsal, though agreed to by OPSB, led to an unequal partnership in which the firm’s control extended beyond financial matters.

“A partnership is when at the beginning of something, you are working together. I don’t feel like that was the case,” Cade said. Cade said then-state Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard forced Alvarez & Marsal on the board, and then tried to present it to the public as a mutual agreement.

As evidence, OPSB cited an October 2005 status report from Alvarez & Marsal to the board, in which the firm listed staffing, hiring and processing of  school employees under its summary of activities.

Cade and Sanders said Picard, who died in 2007, maneuvered not only to give the firm financial control, but also to replace then-Superintendent Ora Watson with the firm’s managing director, Bill Roberti. Picard also wanted Rod Paige, a former U.S. secretary of education, to serve as acting chief academic officer, Cade said.

Cade said Paige and Picard lobbied her to back these changes in leadership. She insinuated that Paige allowed her to evacuate to his Houston home after Katrina in exchange for her support. Picard called Cade while she was at Paige’s home and asked for her assistance in supporting Paige and Roberti for leadership positions.

Cade said she had told no one that she was staying with Paige. “I felt my privacy had been invaded,” she said of Picard’s call. “I didn’t think it was anyone else’s business that I was staying there.” Cade said that Picard told her over the phone that he knew she “would do the right thing to help the district.”

Sanders testified that he wrote to then-Governor Kathleen Blanco, to complain about Picard’s actions, and also voiced his concerns in meetings with other state officials.

Roberti was scheduled to take the stand this morning. The trial is expected to last a month.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • Ronald Johnson

    Very good

  • Atwood O. Jones Jr.

    THERE APPEARS TO B A CONSPIRACY GOING between “THE POWERS THAT WERE TO BE.” IF THESE,(SNAKE People), for lack of a better term would have asked FEMA to pay the teachers, we would not be in court today. I know we will prevail, because GOD is on the side of “RIGHT”,and the Teachers are “RIGHT”
    A teacher that was wronged by the state and localSchool Boards.

  • Creoleart

    All of this is so true but WHY are we filing against the STATEDOE?? This was all their doing!! They love the fact that this city is divided now. I want the State to be held accountable!!!!!

  • J. Gian

    I agree with Atwood Jones Jr.’s comment above. There definitely seems to be a conspiracy between the State, and the School Board going on here. As a former employee of the Maintenance Department, I don’t think that it would be very hard to prove that Alvarez & Marsal were not managing the operational functions in the schools accordingly to all of the City of New Orleans safety codes and regulations.

  • Mary Jane Clark

    Remember also that the State changed the rules just for Orleans Parish when it came to taking over schools. McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter had an SPS over 60; however, the State used the state average instead to place schools in the RSD. That was another wrong done to the OPSB, teachers, the principal, students, parents, and the people of New Orleans. I had parents that signed petitions to reopen the school, which had minimal damage, but nobody listened.

  • tac

    I truly believe that a few greedy people saw an opportunity and took it. I was truly mortified and distraught. How do you do something like that.? Did they not feel any since of concern for their employees? I wonder how many of them kept their benifits and salaries and recieved financial support in other means because of the storm? Also can anyone please tell me what happened to pre-existing accounts that were at schools and why computers and other materials that can be of use to students are sitting in warehouses in Jefferson Parish? Call me dumb, but were any of the data equipment and instructional materials used in the system insured and where did that money go?

  • Emile Hall

    Where is the media coverage!!!!! Ther is unfortunately a perception of bias in the media regarding this “Trial of the Century”. It lends itself to slanted reporting or lack ther of. Is it because a Landrieu is involved? You can’t tell me that this travisty of justice does not deserve daily coverage and attention. This should be in the public domain via mass media as long as the trial is taking place. The trial shoulbe be televised.

  • D. Gall

    How will they be able to reimburse the wronged employees and their families, for all of the extenuating circumstances which have occurred since August of 2005? There are far greater claims these people have than just wrongful termination. This has affected every aspect of their lives, and their families. These employees have children in schools to, and these children also had to deal with many of the problems that have been created at home, by having either a mom or dad illegally fired and out of work.
    What message are we going to send to these children about their public school system in Louisiana, and our system of Justice in the United States if all claims are not satisfied? It won’t be a positive one.