NEW ORLEANS - Orleans Civil Court Judge Ethel Simms Julien awarded more than $1 million to seven people who filed suit against the Orleans Parish School Board.
Julien ruled they were among the 7,000 teachers and other employees wrongly fired by the district after Hurricane Katrina nearly seven years ago.
"What happened here is that Hurricane Katrina was used as a fictional excuse to essentially fire all the teachers," said plaintiffs' attorney Anthony Irpino. "None of which in our class were accused of wrongdoing, were accused of underperforming themselves."
"The evidence clearly shows that the school board had no choice but to lay off those teachers," said the board's attorney Bill Aaron. "As you recall there were two big incidents. One was Hurricane Katrina which closed down all of the schools. The second big incident was the state taking over all the schools."
The ruling now clears the way for damages to be awarded to other school employees.
Aaron says if you do the math, the school district and its co-defendant the state department of education are exposed to more than $1 billion in potential judgments.
"Although the money comes in through the school district, it has to follow the child," said Aaron. "So, the money is going to RSD, it's going to charter schools, it's going to various other places, so there's clearly no way for the school board to pay this."
Plaintiff's attorneys say money for the judgments should not come from money meant for the classroom.
"The Orleans Parish School Board as well as the state of Louisiana received hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA to continue to pay teachers," said Irpino. "The money was used for who knows what."
More than 80 percent of the city's schools were submerged by flood waters from Katrina.
The state eventually took over most of them through the Recovery School District.
Irpino says the RSD should have automatically rehired OPSB employees.
"Rather than hire and have these people who had their jobs, had tenure, had property rights, rather than have them work at these schools, in large part they went out and got Teach For America people to work in the new RSD schools."
"The evidence showed that a number of teachers refused to be tested," said Aaron. "One of the elements by the RSD is that you had to take an entrance exam and the evidence showed a number of teachers just refused to take the exam."
Thursday, Governor Bobby Jindal commented on the lawsuit.
"Regardless of what happens in court, it's simply not acceptable that we go back to the educational system that was in place pre-Katrina," said Jindal. "We now have an educational system that's improving. That's providing better education. Still more work that needs to be done. But, we've got a school system that's moving in the right direction."
Attorneys on both sides expect appeals in the case and for the matter to eventually head to the Louisiana Supreme Court.