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.

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...