A public charter school's board has suspended its leader as she faces accusations that one of the three schools she oversaw engaged in grade-fixing and that she falsified public records over a bus contract.
The New Beginnings Schools Foundation board voted unanimously Monday to place CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams on paid leave while hiring the law firm Adams and Reese LLP to investigate the two allegations.
The charter organization has come under fire after former data director Runell King said he was wrongfully fired for alerting the board that other employees at John F. Kennedy High School had manually changed grades from F's to D's and from D's to C's.
Investigators with Adams and Reese also will look into allegations that Blouin-Williams altered public meeting minutes to make it appear that the board approved a million-dollar school bus contract that at least one former member said she didn't see, according to an investigation by WWL-TV, and that did not appear on the original meeting agenda.
"We have heard numerous allegations," Raphael Gang, the board's chairman, said at the meeting. "It became abundantly clear that we needed to hire an outside entity that could come in and do a fully independent audit."
Blouin-Williams has previously denied the allegations that school employees gave credits to students they didn't earn in an apparent attempt to raise performance scores. On Monday, her attorney, Robert Jenkins, said he and his client had no further comment about the latest allegations or her suspension.
A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board said the district would be investigating "all new allegations."
“As an authorizer of schools, the OPSB takes the integrity of education very seriously," spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said.
Ellis said the district would reopen the investigation into alleged grade changes after "additional concerning information came to light" within the last month, and that officials would be "actively investigating all new allegations" concerning contracts.
The issue of alleged grade changes first came up in February when King, who worked as the New Beginnings foundation's director of data, assessment and accountability, raised the alarm, OPSB records show. He was fired on March 12, which he says was in retaliation for his whistleblowing.
Records indicate that King became concerned when he saw a red symbol next to certain grades in the organization's software program, called PowerSchool. He called the grade book's support team and was told the symbols indicated that the grades were changed manually, which can only be done by a teacher assigned to the class who has log-in credentials.
Emails made public by the OPSB show King contacted Blouin-Williams and other administrators multiple times in February, urging them to investigate the matter.
Blouin-Williams has said that King was fired for other reasons. She also told parents that the grades were changed because of an error in PowerSchool in weighting grades, or calculating various components of a final grade worth 100 percent. When using weighted grades, schools can take into account components like quizzes, exams and homework.
At least 17 students enrolled in an Algebra III class moved from an F to a D on second-quarter report cards, records show.
The initial investigation was closed on March 12 after Kelli Peterson, the Orleans Parish school district's senior equity and accountability officer, concluded "the incorrect grades that were printed on the Q2 report cards were in fact due to a grade weight issue within PowerSchool," according to emails.
But King said that conclusion is impossible, because if the changes had been related to a mistake in weighting the grades, then every student in the class would see an increase in points.
"Statistically, each student enrolled in each section of Algebra III would benefit from a higher grade," King wrote in a letter to Michael Washington, the foundation's director of human resources, on Feb. 3.
Moreover, the name associated with the grade changes was that of the former data manager of New Beginnings, who no longer was employed by the organization when the changes were made, the emails show.
The grade changes could have far-reaching implications for the C-rated school, which had 690 students this fall, especially if a change from failing grades allowed seniors to graduate. Both student grades and graduation rates are factored into the letter grades each school receives from the state every year.
Kennedy's C grade was earned largely because of its graduation rate, for which it received a B. But Louisiana Department of Education records show that the school got an F for students' performance on standardized tests.
The OPSB already announced that New Beginnings would lose its charter for Medard H. Nelson Charter School in Gentilly next year because the school was failing and was not able to improve its score in time.
That will leave New Beginnings with Kennedy and the D-rated Pierre A. Capdau Charter School.
The law firm will also look into allegations about a bus company that works for the charter organization. WWL-TV reported last week that the bus company, Scholars First, gave false information about its insurance coverage, which prompted the state's insurance commissioner to launch an investigation.
Then, on Friday, WWL-TV reported that an ex-employee accused Blouin-Williams of changing the minutes of board meetings to make it look like the board had approved the company's contract in September 2017.
The employee spoke to the TV station anonymously out of fear of retaliation, the station reported.
According to WWL-TV, documents showed Blouin-Williams and Jeramy Jackson, the owner of Scholars First, signed a contract on Aug. 1, 2017.
The board minutes on the New Beginnings website show the board didn’t review that contract until September, even though the board is supposed to approve any contract worth more than $75,000 before it takes effect.
A meeting agenda posted on the website also listed "contract approvals" under "action items." But a copy of the agenda emailed to the press in September 2017 didn't show that item at all. Nor does the board's former chair, Leslie Bouie, remember approving that contract, WWL-TV said.
The station also accessed a recording of the board meeting and found that the vote never took place.
“If it’s not on the tape, then I didn’t do it,” Bouie told WWL-TV.
On Monday, Gang said the law firm the charter organization has hired is "very well respected" and used for "just these kinds of investigations."
"This is in the best interest of our students and our families," Gang said. "They deserve to know exactly what's going on in this organization, with full transparency and accountability."