A program from John F. Kennedy High School's 2019 graduation, which took place amid an investigation into grade inflation at the Gentilly high school. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

A panel of three state court of appeals judges denied the New Beginnings Schools Foundation’s request to review a lower court judge’s decision that kept the charter group as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by several students affected by the John F. Kennedy High School graduation scandal last spring. 

The judges handed down their decision denying the charter group’s request on Jan. 14. The students’ lawyer, Suzette Bagneris, called the request another delay tactic. 

“They’re just attempting to delay this and string this out,” Bagneris said in an interview Tuesday. “And in the interim, there are kids who still don’t know what their graduation status is and still don’t have transcripts.”

She estimated about 20 students from Kennedy’s class of 2019 still did not know their graduation status. 

New Beginnings’ board president Raphael Gang wrote in an email Tuesday that the organization couldn’t comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit. 

Bagneris said New Beginnings has challenged nearly every aspect of the case since it was filed July 1 in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. The lawsuit was filed weeks after dozens of Kennedy students learned they hadn’t met state requirements for graduation despite walking across the stage at their May commencement ceremony. 

Bagneris sued the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Orleans Parish School Board, New Beginnings and a contractor the charter group hired after former CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams was suspended. Bagneris agreed to drop the contractor from the lawsuit and later added the Louisiana Department of Education as a defendant. 

Despite students anxiously awaiting their diplomas, the lawsuit dragged on throughout the summer in what Bagneris described as a “shell game,” as the district, network and state all pointed their fingers at each other for the delays.

“These kids are going to have their day.”

Plaintiffs’ Attorney Suzette Bagneris

In October, Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge Robin Giarrusso dismissed BESE and the Orleans Parish School Board from the case, but not New Beginnings. Although OPSB authorized New Beginnings’ charters, including the one for Kennedy, it argued it has no responsibility over the charter network’s academic offerings and records — the main sources of students’ troubles.  

New Beginnings argued it shouldn’t be included in the lawsuit because the petition was vague, didn’t demonstrate the students’ ability to sue the charter group and that Bagneris’ attempt to form a class-action was inappropriate. Giarrusso denied the network’s request. 

In late November, New Beginnings filed an application for supervisory writ, a request for review,  with the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. The appeals court denied the writ last week. 

Late last week, New Beginnings lawyer Meredith Cunningham filed a request to halt any further proceedings in the trial pending a decision on Bagneris’ appeal challenging the judge’s dismissal of the Orleans Parish School Board and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Bagneris said she will oppose Cunningham’s request.

“I think it’s shameful that they’re putting the parents and students through this,” she said.

Bagneris said New Beginnings is also challenging the third party Giarrusso selected to communicate with all Kennedy students regarding the lawsuit. 

“I will chase them down every rabbit hole they run to,” she said Tuesday. “I’m not going to give up on this.”

In the midst of the scandal last summer, New Beginnings voted to surrender the charters for both of its schools — Kennedy and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Without those schools to run, the organization could dissolve after the school is over and it completes a final audit. With her eyes on the clock, as the school year winds down, Bagneris said she will challenge New Beginnings’ request to halt the proceedings. 

“These kids are going to have their day.”

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...