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Louisiana Supreme Court to decide case of school workers fired after Katrina

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NEW ORLEANS — The lack of available jobs at schools in a city nearly wiped out by a 2005 hurricane did not give school authorities in New Orleans the right to fire more than 7,000 school employees without legal due process, attorneys for the employees told the Louisiana Supreme Court on Thursday.

At issue are lower court rulings that said the teachers, aides, service workers and a host of other employees are due two to three years in back pay and benefits from the Orleans Parish School Board and the state of Louisiana because of the way they were fired following Hurricane Katrina. Federal levees gave way during the killer storm, flooding most of the city at the beginning of the 2005 school year.

Arguments centered not just on the firing of the teachers by the local school board, but also on the state's role in taking over the vast majority of New Orleans public schools — and whether the state made a sufficient effort to re-hire employees who lost their jobs after the storm.

Arguing for the state, attorney Michael Rubin said the firings were unavoidable, given the destruction. "How can you award them damages for jobs that didn't exist at schools destroyed by the storm?" he asked.

Anthony Irpino, arguing for the employees, said the firings and takeover were part of an effort to reshape the city's school system without regard to the rights of the employees, or how well they had done their jobs prior to the storm. Part of his argument centered on the school board's failure to assemble a required "recall list" from which people would be re-hired following a reduction in force. He also said teacher tenure laws were violated.

He cited the case of one highly rated teacher who notified the school system of her whereabouts after the storm and returned to her relatively undamaged school when it was able to reopen, only to find that her job was gone.

Supreme Court justices gave no indication when they would rule.

Exactly how much money is at stake is unclear, although at one point during the appeals process an attorney said an early district court ruling in favor of the employees could cost the board as much as $1.5 billion.

In January, a state appeals court upheld a New Orleans judge's ruling in favor of the employees, but reduced potential damages, saying employees who meet certain requirements were entitled to two years of back pay from the school board, instead of five, plus an additional year, in some cases, from the state.

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