A former New Beginnings Schools Foundation employee who raised a red flag on what he said are suspicious grade changes at John F. Kennedy High School asked for his job back at a special meeting of the charter school network’s governing board Thursday night.
Runell King hired employment lawyer Dorothy Tarver this week. As the board moved into a closed-door executive session to discuss misconduct allegations regarding the grade changes, Tarver spoke up on his behalf.
“We are here today to ask the board to consider putting Dr. King on suspension with leave, as opposed to termination without leave,” she said to board members in the school library.
As King later waited in the hallway with reporters and his lawyer during the board’s 30-minute executive session Tarver told The Lens she’s hopeful.
“We’re hoping they’ll amend his penalty for whistleblowing to suspension with pay,” she said.
“I think after the investigations are over there will be no allegations against Dr. King,” she said. “He had the courage to come forward because he loves the school system.”
King is no stranger to New Beginnings board meetings. He’s attended all of them since he was terminated in March. He said New Beginnings told him he was fired because he did not bring forward evidence to substantiate his claim that the January grade changes were suspicious.
King told The Lens at least 17 students in Algebra III moved from an F to a D after the algebra teacher left the network for personal reasons. But a network investigation didn’t reach the same conclusion, and he was terminated.
However, after The Lens published a story on King’s allegations — including communications from the Algebra III teacher who told New Beginnings administrators that some of those students should have received Fs — both New Beginnings and the Orleans Parish school district reopened their investigations into the matter.
The New Beginnings board has hired the Adams and Reese law firm to investigate the allegations of grade inflation. (When Algiers Charter Schools investigated a cheating scandal in 2016 it spent over $100,000.) The firm is also investigating allegations that CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams doctored board meeting minutes to falsely reflect that the board approved a lucrative contract with the Scholars First bus company.
While King was fired, Blouin-Williams has been placed on paid leave, pending the results of the investigation. And other employees King alleged to have been involved in grade fixing have not faced any disciplinary action.
“I believe the allegations against him are such that [paid suspension] should be considered by the board,” Tarver said,” in light of the allegations against him, as opposed to the other people under investigation. So we would like the board to consider it.”
The board did not formally address King’s request when the meeting opened to the public again, but board chairman Raphael Gang said he’d speak with King and his attorney in private.
Blouin-Williams was not in attendance Thursday.
Tarver also questioned Adams and Reese’s ability to complete an objective investigation because she said the law firm has worked for the school before. She noted that New Beginnings’ lawyer, Michelle Craig, used to work for the firm.
The Orleans Parish school district is largely relying on that investigation, Communications Director Tania Dall wrote in an email Thursday night.
“Rather than initiating an additional investigation, the Orleans Parish School Board is awaiting the results of the NBSF investigation before determining whether additional action is necessary,” she wrote.
Dall contacted The Lens the following day with an updated statement: “OPSB officials are continuing to gather facts through our investigation. It is still an open and ongoing investigation.”
The board also authorized Gang to hire a new bus company to replace Scholars First, which is facing a criminal investigation.
“We felt the prudent thing to do was secure a new contractor until the end of the year,” Gang said.
Gang said they did not put the contract out for bid, instead using an emergency procurement process.
Scholars First lost its contract with Einstein Charter Schools on Monday and has faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the WWLTV investigation. Reporter David Hammer reported the company had falsified insurance certificates it gave to Einstein and New Beginnings. The company also locked a sleeping 11-year-old student in a bus on its lot.
But questionable actions surrounding Scholars First don’t stop with the bus company.
Hammer questioned Blouin-Williams last month about the allegedly falsified meeting minutes, but she declined to comment. Minutes from a September 2017 board meetings on the charter group’s website show the contract was approved. But an audio recording of the meeting Hammer obtained did not contain a vote, he reported. The minutes also appear to have been created in August 2018, nearly a year after the meeting took place, Hammer reported.
Also, Thursday night, the network authorized Gang to hire an administrative support services organization for the network. Gang said New Beginnings needs additional help, given Blouin-Williams’ suspension, upcoming state testing and the planned closure of network school Medard Nelson Elementary.
“What’s become apparent is that we do have needs as an organization,” he said. He did not name the company that he plans to hire.
Update: This story was updated with additional information from the Orleans Parish School Board on Friday, April 12, 2019.