Decision Pending on Mass Firing of New Orleans Public School Teachers after Hurricane Katrina
NEW ORLEANS - It was January of 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters swallowed her home in the Lower 9th Ward, when the news reached Gwendolyn Adams by word of mouth: after nearly three decades of teaching, she'd been dismissed along with 7,500 other Orleans Parish public school system employees.
She never got a severance package or a hearing with a union rep.
Just the axe.
"They had thrown us away like last week's trash," Adams said. "People who had given 30, 40 years of their lives."
Adams has not forgotten. She hasn't forgiven either, not least of all, because she never received an apology. Instead, on the sixth anniversary of the storm that marked the end of her teaching career -- and her retirement plans as she knew them -- Adams waits with seething anticipation to know whether a judge will hold the school board and state officials accountable for the damage caused by the firings.
She isn't named in a class action lawsuit filed by seven former school employees, but she is one of a handful of teachers who sat through every long day of testimony in the trial back in June and now waits for a ruling.
Their stories help illuminate a wound that has never healed completely, and one that has infused the debate over reforming education in New Orleans with a particular bitterness. For teachers like Adams, the decision to lay off educators and put an end to collective bargaining is the reform movement's original sin, a blow and an insult to one of the pillars of the city's black middle class.
"How could you fight this when people were dispersed all over the country?" Adams asked, sitting at the dining room table in a 9th Ward home that is still mostly surrounded by empty lots. "That's what made it such an ideal time for them to do this. Because they knew the union's strength was in numbers. And we didn't have the numbers."
Many argue the status quo in New Orleans came with its own human cost: some of the lowest-performing public schools in the U.S. and a cycle of poverty that still grips New Orleans just as it does in other urban centers across the country.
Proponents of the new system of independent charter schools, which operate without the constraints imposed by union rules, can point to steadily rising test scores and a narrowing achievement gap.
And one small group of the school system's former employees can't speak for all of them. Hundreds found jobs at the small number of campuses the local school board held on to. Even some charter schools in New Orleans are staffed mainly by veterans.
Still, for some, the trial's outcome will carry enormous symbolic weight, even if it appears unlikely to pay off monetarily any time soon, if ever. The state or school board could still appeal a ruling against them. Even if the state or school board is ultimately held liable, individuals affected by the layoffs would then have to prove specific damages.
"I'm not counting those chickens," Adams said. "It's about justice."
Adams, now 59 years old, began her teaching career back in the late 1970s after a stint with the Department of Welfare, handing out assistance checks and food stamps in the 70126 zip code, which encompassed the Desire housing projects.
"I got frustrated because I realized that doling out benefits was not helping anybody," she recalled. "I gave it some thought and said maybe if I started with children I would have an impact and I would really be able to change someone's life."
Adams said she went back to school, earned her teaching certificate at Southern University and found a job at McDonogh 36.
She remembers making do with scarce resources. "We didn't make much money, but we went into our pockets. We bought school supplies, we bought uniforms, we bought things to decorate our classrooms. I kept a hammer and a screwdriver in my class for things that would break."
After almost 30 years in the classroom, the summary dismissal after the storm didn't go down well. Adams decided to retire early, taking reduced benefits rather than reapplying for a job. "I wasn't going to let the school district put me through that type of anguish," she said.
There were other perceived injustices visited on teachers after the storm.
The Legislature in Baton Rouge voted shortly after to approve a state takeover of most New Orleans campuses, handing schools over to the state-run Recovery School District. The district's new superintendent, Robin Jarvis, also decided that all teachers rehired into the system would have to take a test. During the 2007 school year, the district even reported a shortage of qualified teachers.
"That was an insult to me," said Billie Dolce, who also chose to retire after the storm and attended the trial in June. "I was an NTE certified teacher," she added, referring to the national teacher examination.
Like Adams, Dolce said she would still be teaching were it not for the storm.
At the first opportunity, Dolce went back to her office at Charles J. Colton Middle School on St. Claude Avenue to collect her things with a friend. She found the building had been lived in and vandalized.
"I said, 'What am I going to do? How am I going to get 30 years of my personal stuff out of here? Pictures of my students, the little trinkets they had made me?'" Dolce recalled. "My friend told me, 'Billie, just walk away.' But I said, 'I can't. This is my life.'"
Dolce said she understood the school district's need to downsize. Even today, the number of public school students in New Orleans hasn't returned to pre-storm levels. Since state funding for schools is doled out on a per-student basis, the system was always going to have to shrink its workforce.
But, she pointed out, just as with students, not every teacher would have returned. There should have been a more deliberative process for hiring back teachers based on seniority and other factors. "Don't just throw the baby out with the bathwater," she said.
Dolce also took a reduced set of retirement benefits, though she was able to get on her husband's health insurance through the military.
Others fared worse.
Johnny Bridges, a math teacher at Samuel J. Green Middle School at the time of the storm, faced not only the loss of his own job but that of his wife, a social worker for the district, and his daughter, a special-education teacher.
Bridges feels the school system's teachers got the blame for the failures of the old school board, which became notorious for the corruption cases that marred its reputation before the storm. On the other hand, he's no fan of the system the state put in place, voicing a widely-held suspicion that charter schools hand-pick their students, a claim charters vehemently deny.
He said he felt his only option was to retire, even though his benefits would shrink.
"Me and my wife were trying to set ourselves up so we wouldn't live in poverty when we retired," Bridges said. "That's what they took away from us. Now we don't have the means to enjoy this big thing people put in your mind when you're working -- your golden years. We're living retirement check to retirement check. If my cost of living goes up, I am absolutely devastated."
He explained why he sat through the testimony during the June trial. "It's hard not to try to figure out how this happened to me," he said. "After all these years of working, how am I in this predicament now, and who's to blame for this?"