Fri January 17, 2014
Ruling May Mean Bankruptcy For New Orleans School System
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. In New Orleans, a court decision threatens to bankrupt the public school system. A state appeals court ruled that the school board for Orleans Parrish wrongly terminated some 7,000 teachers and other school employees after Hurricane Katrina. They're to be awarded two to three years back pay.
A school board attorney has warned that the ruling could cost the school system $1.5 billion. Joining us to talk about this is Sarah Carr. She's an education reporter in New Orleans for the education news service, the Hechinger Report. Sarah, welcome.
SARAH CARR: I'm happy to be here.
BLOCK: And why don't you start by explaining just how the New Orleans school system was restructured after Hurricane Katrina?
CARR: Sure. There were two main actions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The first was that the state swept most of the public schools out of the hands of the locally elected school board and absorbed them into what's known as the state run recovery school district. And the second was that they made this very controversial decision, which is the issue in this lawsuit to fire the school district employees en masse, affecting about 7,500 employees.
BLOCK: And now, the Louisiana appeals court has ruled in the teachers' favor. How did it explain its ruling?
CARR: Well, it said that due process was not followed for these upwards of 7,000 employees and that even though they weren't all guaranteed jobs by any stretch, that the school board should have created what's called a recall list of those who were available to come and return and resume work in the schools and that the state, for its part, which absorbed most of the schools after Hurricane Katrina, should have also considered rehiring some of the teachers.
BLOCK: And the price tag for this, as we mentioned, is estimated at $1.5 billion dollars for backpay for these teachers who were fired. Does that sound about right to you?
CARR: You know, I don't think anybody knows exactly what it's going to pan out to be at this point, but I don't think one billion is a totally unreasonable estimate. The payroll for the school system employees before Hurricane Katrina was about a quarter-billion annually. And so if we're talking about two to three years, there's definitely a possibility it could approach one billion and it sort of depends on who turns out to be eligible for the backpay and benefits.
BLOCK: Now, assuming this ruling stands, Sarah, who would actually pay that money. When we say this threatens to bankrupt the public school system, what's left of the public school system?
CARR: That's a good question. I don't really think anybody knows how the details would be ironed out because more than 90 percent of public school children in New Orleans today attend independently run charter schools, so it really is a big question whether or not these independent charters would be liable. And I think even the fired employees and their supporters wouldn't want this to be severely detrimental to the educations of today's schoolchildren in the city.
BLOCK: Talk a bit, Sarah, about how the teaching force in New Orleans has changed since Katrina and the firing of these 7,000 or so teachers.
CARR: Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had one of the highest rates of African-American schoolteachers, which was at about 75 percent. And hundreds, if not thousands, of them have come back and continue to work in the public schools today. But the firing and the decentralization and the chartering of the schools really opened the door for pretty significant changes in the teaching force and there's no question that the teaching force in New Orleans today is younger and whiter and less local than it was before Hurricane Katrina.
BLOCK: And hasn't the end result been that with this upheaval, the clean slate brought on by Katrina in these schools, that the schools now are performing better than they used to?
CARR: The test scores have been going up but I think it's just - it's a very complicated picture and there are those who want to blame the pre-Katrina teachers for the failings of the public schools and there are those who, on the other hand, want to say that all of the new young teachers are culturally incompetent and can't really relate to the students.
And I think both of those are very extreme and gross distortions and that the truth is really much messier and in between.
BLOCK: Sarah Carr, thanks so much.
CARR: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Sarah Carr, her book about New Orleans schools is titled "Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America's Children." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.