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

The Orleans Parish School Board is fighting a lawyer’s request to depose NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. to privately interview him under oath as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by John F. Kennedy High School families in the wake of Kennedy’s 2019 graduation scandal.

The NOLA Public Schools’ district was previously named as a defendant in the case, but Judge Robin Giarrusso dismissed the district in October 2019, a decision that the plaintiffs have appealed. The district argues that Lewis has nothing relevant to testify about because state law gives charters schools autonomy over grading and record-keeping. An appeal to their dismissal is pending.

In a Tuesday filing, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Suzette Bagneris, argued that Lewis and former NOLA Public Schools employee Kelli Peterson are the only people who can explain several key documents unearthed in the case. Peterson worked for the district throughout 2019 — when a report by The Lens on allegations of improper grade inflation triggered a series of investigations into the school. As a result, about half the members of the 2019 senior class were told — a month after that year’s graduation ceremony — that they were not eligible to receive their diplomas. Peterson now works for the Louisiana Department of Education, which is also party to the lawsuit.

Bagneris’ filing also provides new details about the 2019 grade changing scandal, specifically outlining how several Kennedy employees “intentionally changed graduating seniors’ grades to inflate the number of graduating seniors to improve school performance scores.”

Five administrators terminated

The alleged grade-changing incident was separate from the earlier one reported by The Lens in March 2019, which investigators were unable to verify. The second alleged incident happened in May 2019, just days before the 2019 graduation ceremony and was intended to help students graduate. That’s according to a September deposition of Raphael Gang — president of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation board, which ran Kennedy in 2019 — attached to Bagneris’ filing. 

“Mr. Gang admitted under oath on September 3, 2020 that Brian Gibson and several other Kennedy administrators were terminated in May 2019, when it came to light that they intentionally changed graduating seniors’ grades to inflate the number of graduating seniors to improve school performance scores,” Bagneris wrote.

Some of those seniors were ineligible to graduate through no fault of their own. A state review found that the school did not always offer some key classes, and some were improperly allowed to take remedial courses online, without required supervision by a certified teacher. 

Within days of discovering the May 2019 grade changes, New Beginnings fired five Kennedy administrators, including then-Principal Brian Gibson. At the time, Gang would not say specifically why they were fired — or even that they were fired — and a later NOLA Public Schools investigation included little detail about the incident. 

According to the filing and an attached deposition transcript, Gang testified that the graduation ceremony’s program, which listed the names of the class of 2019 seniors who would graduate, was printed several weeks prior to the event and served as a public-facing record of who would graduate. But, he said, it wasn’t accurate. Some of the students listed weren’t eligible to graduate, though many would be allowed to participate in the ceremony.

“What became clear to us was that there were students that were on that list who were not eligible to graduate and that various individuals inside John F. Kennedy knew were ineligible to graduate and were going to falsify records in order to make them eligible to graduate,” Gang said in his testimony according to the filing. 

Those changes were made in the three to four days leading up to the May 17 graduation. The discovery led to a schoolwide transcript review. 

“When we caught them doing this, that then called into question every student in the class and whether they were eligible to graduate, because we couldn’t distinguish between which students they had falsified and which students they hadn’t falsified records for,” Gang testified.

An attorney for Brian Gibson, the school’s former principal who is now suing the charter network for wrongful termination, denied the claims.

“Upon hearing this information, Mr. Gibson is outraged. He feels that this is boarding on defamation. It’s baseless. It’s meritless and at the appropriate time he will fully address these outlandish allegations,” attorney Kenya Rounds said in a Tuesday.

The New Beginnings board voted to surrender both of its charters — for Kennedy and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — last year. Kennedy is now run by KIPP New Orleans.

A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board said the board doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters. In an email, Gang wrote he had no comment. 

A graduation lawsuit

The lawsuit has dragged on for more than a year. It was first filed when students were begging for their transcripts so they could enroll in college. Now, more than a full year later, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation exists in name only and no longer operates any schools.

Bagneris filed the suit on July 1, 2019 on behalf of Darnette Daniels and her daughter, one of the students who was unable to graduate in 2019 as expected. 

Bagneris argues the district’s ability to impose sanctions on its charters and subsequent actions — such as expanding its oversight of high school records, recordkeeping and course offerings — make Lewis’ testimony relevant and shows the district played a role in the school’s operation. 

“Why did OPSB investigate NBSF when it alleged in this lawsuit that it had no control over it to avoid responsibility to the plaintiffs in this lawsuit?” Bagneris asks in the filing.

Meanwhile, the district argues its arms-length oversight of charter schools under state law means it wasn’t in charge of grades at the school. In the fall of 2019, a judge agreed and dismissed the district from the case. The plaintiffs are appealing that decision. 

Whether or not the district is a named defendant, Bagneris still wants Lewis to sit for a deposition.

“If the OPSB could take these actions in the aftermath of what happened to the Kennedy students, wasn’t it feasible to perform these tasks before what happened to the Kennedy students? The plaintiffs would like to pose that question to Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr.,” Bagneris wrote in her filing.

She notes that two district employees were present at the March 2019 meeting where NBSF suspended its then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams. District warning letters from June and July of last year also “make it clear that the OPSB was issuing mandates to NBSF in connection with its legal duty to provide oversight and supervision.”

She further argues that Lewis and Peterson are the only ones who can explain certain letters and other documents and notes that district staff spent time embedded at Kennedy’s campus during the summer of 2019.

Bagneris’ filing says that the district’s response to the Kennedy scandal — from requiring high schools to submit yearly course offerings to reviewing high school transcripts — shows that oversight of school operations lies within its purview. The district also reviewed all high school pupil progression plans midway through the 2019-2020 school year after one school had questions on its policy. The district homed in on one “repeat/delete” policy in particular that was problematic at Kennedy.

“Now, with daylight upon it, and after the fact, the OPSB is changing the way it provides oversight to charter schools in Orleans Parish, as a direct result of what it FAILED TO DO at Kennedy,” Bagneris’ filing says.

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...