Runell King pleads with the charter board of New Beginnings Schools Foundation to investigate his allegations of grade inflation at a board meeting March 28, 2019. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

A former charter school network administrator who was fired last year after alerting superiors to suspicious grade changes at John F. Kennedy High School, is suing the school’s charter operator — the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — citing the state’s whistleblower law. 

In the suit, the former administrator, Runell King, alleges he was fired immediately after threatening to go to the media when the charter group dismissed his concerns. 

The timing, the suit charges, suggests that his refusal to participate in apparent grade inflation, telling his bosses about it and then threatening to go public were why he was fired. 

King ultimately did go public with his concerns last year, shortly after his firing. In March 2019, he told The Lens that higher-ups at the New Beginnings Schools Foundation initially failed to conduct a thorough investigation into about a dozen instances of students’ grades being inflated at the Gentilly high school. Shortly after the story was published, the network’s board authorized a new investigation, which eventually uncovered much deeper problems at the school. 

The network’s internal investigation — along with work by a contractor hired to help manage the network and probes by the state and NOLA Public Schools district — uncovered widespread mismanagement, special education problems and student transcripts that were incomplete or could not be verified. Dozens of seniors from the class of 2019 learned nearly a month after graduation last summer they hadn’t actually been eligible to receive diplomas. 

After then-Chief Executive Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams resigned and several employees were dismissed, and as troubling details continued to mount over the summer, the charter group voted to surrender both Kennedy and its other charter school, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, at the end of this school year. 

The group’s final year of managing the schools — including helping some of last year’s seniors get their diplomas — has been upended by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide month-long school shutdown in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

King’s lawsuit was filed the day that order was given, about one year after he was fired. 

“It is pretty clear that Dr. King did advise all the powers that be of the grade changing that appears to be taking place,” his lawyer Galen Hair said in an interview Thursday. “And it’s curious to Dr. King, and frankly anyone else that knows about the situation, that he was later told he didn’t provide enough information to substantiate his allegations.”

At the time of our first story, Blouin-Williams wouldn’t say why King was fired and simply that New Beginnings was “an at-will agency.” 

“I think there’s a rational conclusion that one could make that had he not said anything about the grade changes that he wouldn’t be in this situation today,” Hair said.

Hair said King has suffered economic loss and wants his reputation to be publicly restored. 

“He was not the boy who cried wolf,” Hair said. “He was an educated individual who thoroughly investigated the situation and sought the truth until the very end.”

With courts and other agencies temporarily closed and operating at reduced capacities due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hair said he was unsure of a timeline for the lawsuit. 

“We have a job to do, we had to file that suit to protect Dr. King and his interests,” he said. “But right now the larger concern is everyone stays safe.”

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...