John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue in Gentilly. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The Orleans Parish school district is considering revoking the New Beginnings charter network’s contract for John F. Kennedy High School over improper grade changes, “financial malfeasance,” and other violations of the charter group’s operating agreement.

In a warning letter Friday, Orleans Parish schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote the charter network is “deemed non-compliant with its contractual obligations.“

The letter describes the grade-fixing allegations as “egregious and/or consistent violation of applicable federal, state, or local law” or school district policy.

As The Lens first reported in March, Runell King, a former New Beginnings employee, reported what he saw as suspicious changes to some students’ grades, including grades that went from failing to passing. As King noted in an interview at the time, improperly changing grades could impact the school’s graduation rate, an important component of its state performance score. In this case, the school was graded an F based on state standardized test performance alone. But its graduation rate score was 84.9, a B. Overall, it was rated a C. That C won Kennedy a new charter contract this winter.

King, who was fired by the network earlier this year, thinks his dismissal was in retaliation for reporting the grade changing concerns in the first place. The network initially told The Lens it conducted an internal investigation that didn’t support his allegations. But after the story was published, its governing board changed course. In early April, the board placed then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams on paid leave and voted to hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.

There are multiple allegations of grade changes, Lewis wrote. “The most concerning are the allegations around changes that affect student qualifications for graduation.”

Lewis lists a host of operating agreement violations, including “imminent threat to the health, safety and/or welfare of students” regarding the grade changes. Uncertainty over grade inflation, as well as other problems with students’ records, have left many Kennedy seniors on edge as they await final word on their qualification for a diploma.

“Because of the seriousness of the allegations asserted against NBSF, I am also informing you that revocation is being considered.”—Henderson Lewis Jr.,Orleans Parish schools superintendent

“The grade changes affecting the current graduating class have prevented the students from receiving diplomas or transcripts which prevents the students from progressing to the next phase in their academic futures (i.e. college or other continuing academics),” Lewis’ letter says.

This summer, Lewis will install a designee to the two-school charter network’s office who must be granted full access to charter group’s systems. The charter group also must rewrite policies and submit additional financial data to the district.

“The grade changes affecting the current graduating class have prevented the students from receiving diplomas or transcripts which prevents the students from progressing to the next phase in their academic futures.”—Henderson Lewis Jr.,Orleans Parish schools superintendent

“Because of the seriousness of the allegations asserted against NBSF, I am also informing you that revocation is being considered,” Lewis wrote.

The network, district and state are reviewing students’ transcripts.

Over the last two school years the district has twice threatened to revoke charter operating agreements — its strongest enforcement mechanism in a district composed of nearly all independent charter schools.

After Lewis announced last fall that he would seek to revoke Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence’s charter due to financial mismanagement, the charter group surrendered its contract. Two years ago the district threatened to seek revocation of Einstein Charter Group’s contracts because the network was not providing busing. Einstein started providing buses and is finishing out a yearlong warning which subjects them to additional district monitoring.

New Beginnings runs John F. Kennedy and Pierre Capdau Charter School. (A third New Beginnings School, Medard Nelson Charter School, was already slated for closure.) Asked if the potential revocation would apply to both, a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board responded, “At this time, consideration for revocation is focused on JFK.”

Notice of Non-Compliance

The letter Lewis sent Friday is called a “Notice of Non-compliance level 2.” That’s the highest warning the district issues to its schools. If schools fail to remedy the problems described in a warning letter, the superintendent can begin revocation proceedings.

Lewis’ four-page letter includes a timeline of district communication and outlines four general areas of non-compliance. Two are related to grade changing at Kennedy.

The others are related to a lucrative bus contract that former CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams is alleged to have entered into without a board vote, which would violate charter board policies. Later, she’s alleged to have doctored board meeting minutes to reflect a vote taking place. WWLTV first reported the allegations of the falsified board meeting minutes. Blouin-Williams wouldn’t comment at the time.

In Lewis’ letter, regarding the alleged improper bus contract approval and doctored minutes, he wrote that the district “has received no information to dispute the validity of this claim.”

After King’s allegations became public, Lewis said the school failed to put “safeguards in place to prevent staff and leadership from accessing systems to alter student files and records after being put on notice of possible misconduct.”

“There was nothing provided to OPSB to indicate that NBSF took any steps to address the ability of staff to go into systems and make changes to grades,” he wrote. “This is supported by the second incident that occurred and was reported to OPSB by NBSF.”

It’s unclear exactly what the second incident was, but it appears to have happened after the network decided to look into King’s allegations, a review that’s still ongoing, according to the letter. The second allegation, Lewis wrote, was reported by the network to the school and involved the graduating class of 2019.

“While it has been confirmed that grades have been changed, the full impact is still being determined.”

On Sunday, New Beginnings’ board president Raphael Gang released a statement describing how the school and state have been working to determine the status of its graduates.

“While that work is ongoing, New Beginnings Schools Foundation today let 75 students and their families know that they have been certified as graduates in good standing, and that we are issuing diplomas to them immediately,” he wrote. “We are reviewing transcripts for 80 students and will make decisions on graduation status as soon as we can, and want to emphasize that the fact that they are not included in the first group of diplomas should not be seen as any reflection on their status.”

Later, Gang corrected that number, saying it was actually 67 seniors who had been determined to have met the standards of graduation.

April and May

Lewis’ letter provides a timeline with more details about the two-month-long investigation the charter group hired Adams and Reese law firm to perform.

In an April 24 letter, Lewis wrote that the district asked for confirmation of the network’s investigation, results of the investigation and “inquire if the investigation would include a review of any possible violation(s) of whistleblower laws (or evidence that Dr. King’s dismissal was in retaliation for his report of alleged wrongdoing by NBSF) as it relates to Dr. King’s dismissal by NBSF.”

On May 3, the district sent the charter network priorities to resolve. They included grade review, the alleged bus contract infraction and updates on the investigation. If board meeting minutes were altered, Lewis also wrote, “this could be viewed as a falsification of records which is illegal and carries with it potential civil and criminal penalties.” He said they should contact the proper authorities.

Then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, who was on paid leave at the time, resigned four days later.

A few weeks later, the district appears to have learned more. The network’s “third-party investigation reveals additional grade/change alterations, as a result several Kennedy administrators were terminated,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis said the extent of the effect of these grade changes is still being determined.

Gang did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the district’s non-compliance warning. His most recent press statement, however, was issued on Sunday, two days after he received Lewis’ letter.

Gang said the network will help students who haven’t met graduation standards.

“For all students who are found, after our review, not to have met standards for graduation, the school will ensure that each has a plan and a path to gain the credits and skills that will lead to a diploma, and support from our school to do so,” Gang wrote in the letter.  

“We apologize deeply that the actions of adults in our school has led to frustration for many students and families. We share their anger,” he wrote. “They deserve better, and we are committed to delivering the school they deserve.”

Gang’s statement said families will be updated again on June 14.

Update: This story was updated when Raphael Gang provided a revised number of seniors who qualified for graduation. (June 14, 2019)

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...