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New Beginnings Charter CEO Under Investigation for Grade Changes, Unapproved Contract, Forged Docs to Cover Tracks

April 6, 2019

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation (NBSF), which operates three charter schools in New Orleans: Pierre Capdau (preK – 8), Medard Nelson (preK – 8), and John F. Kennedy High School (9 – 12).

On April 04, 2019, the NBSF board issued the following statement for parents on its website:

April 4, 2019

Dear NBSF Families,

The Board of Directors of New Beginnings Schools Foundation takes seriously the recent allegations that have been made against our administration and staff. In light of these actions, and out of an abundance of caution, we are taking decisive action. We have retained Adams and Reese to conduct an independent review of these allegations. Effective immediately, and for the duration of this investigation, Michelle Blouin-Williams will be on paid leave, and the executive team at New Beginnings will jointly lead the organization until the independent investigation is completed. This will ensure a smooth transition of responsibilities and provide our staff, families, and students with the stability they deserve. Finally, we have been in regular contact with the Orleans Parish School Board and thank Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and his team for their wise counsel and support. The Board of Directors looks forward to the results of the independent review and will continue our commitment to the teachers, students, and families and ultimately to our mission of providing an excellent education for every student in our schools.

In partnership,

NBSF Board of Directors

Now, there’s a lot to unpack.

Let’s get to it.

On March 22, 2019, the Lens published a piece, entitled, “F to D Grade Changes at Kennedy High School Are Suspicious, Former Administrator Says.”

In short, in January 2019, the NBSF data director, Runell King, noticed that some grades had been manually overridden. The grades in question were those of an Algebra III teacher who went on leave. King ended up being fired. As to the grade changes, the explanation given by NBSF CEO, Michelle Blouin-Williams, was that the grades were changed because the course weights were off.

The only problem is that only certain grades in the course were changed, not all.

From the Lens article:

A former administrator at a New Orleans charter school network suspects that John F. Kennedy High School employees changed students’ final letter grades from F’s to D’s and D’s to C’s in an attempt to give students credits they didn’t earn.

At least 17 students in Algebra III moved from an F to a D, according to the employee, Runell King. …

King doesn’t believe the network’s investigation was thorough enough and ignored the evidence he provided. He noted that in one case, he even saw a failing grade changed to a C.

“Seeing those grades inflated, at times two grade levels, was a red flag for me as a data expert,” he said.

If true, the grade inflations could have an effect well beyond individual students at the 690-student high school in Gentilly. If grade changes allowed students to graduate, thus improving Kennedy’s graduation rate, that could also inflate the school’s state letter grade. Graduation rate accounts for a quarter of a school’s state rating.

So, Blouin-Williams’ in-house “investigation” and insufficient explanation of the Algebra III grade changes is one issue. But there is another, and it has to do with falsified board minutes to conceal a student transportation contract that was approved by Blouin-Williams without NBSF board knowledge.

Blouin-Williams apparently needed the fake board minutes for an upcoming audit by the Louisiana legislative auditor– an audit that discovered profound spending. From this April 05, 2019, WWL-TV report:

WWL-TV already questioned Blouin-Williams about the Scholars First school bus contract she signed Aug. 1, 2017. Public records posted on the New Beginnings website and provided to WWL-TV in response to an official request purport that “proposed” contract was brought to the board on Sept. 21, 2017, almost two months after Blouin-Williams and Scholars First owner Jeramy Jackson signed it.

Metadata in the records posted online and provided by Blouin-Williams show they were created in August 2018, a year afterwards. …

A source said Blouin-Williams created the fake board minutes in August 2018 because a required annual audit for the Louisiana Legislative Auditor was beginning, and the organization needed to show major contracts were approved by the board.

That audit, filed in January, found New Beginnings’ staff understated its expenses by $1.1 million and ran a budget deficit of nearly $5 million for the 2017-18 school year. New Beginnings’ fund balance plummeted from $7.5 million in 2017 to just $2.5 million in 2018. The auditors found that Blouin-Williams’ staff “significantly exceeded” the spending New Beginnings’ board had budgeted.

And while that was happening, Blouin-Williams’ contracting practices were questioned. Three local bus vendors bid for the contract that went to Scholars First, a company now under investigation for fraud after WWL-TV discovered it was allegedly falsifying its insurance coverage.

Here is the January 2018 Louisiana legislative auditor’s report.

According to page 31, for fiscal year 2018, Blouin-Williams was paid $220,792 for operating three schools. According to NBSF’s statement to parents, she continues to be paid while on leave during its independent investigation.

As for that 2017-18 budget deficit of almost $5M: Here are some details from page 62, under “operating deficits”:

Condition

For the years ending June 30, 2017 and 2018, the Foundation incurred operating deficits of $899,754 and $4,898,235, respectively. Additionally, the Foundation has budgeted a deficit of $886.173 for fiscal year 2019.

Cause

Due to fiscal year 2018 being a charter renewal year for two of the Foundation’s schools, management knowingly budgeted a deficit to spend down their accumulated net assets on targeted expenditures dedicated to instructional improvement efforts at these two schools; however, ineffective monitoring of budget versus actual resulted in deficit spending significantly exceeding that which was budgeted.

Effect

Potential negative impact on cash flow needs for operating expenses.

Recommendation

We recommend that management implement stronger monitoring of budget versus actual results. In addition, we recommend management explore other sources of funding and/or implement cost-containment measures to reduce operating expenses.

Surely one “cost-containment measure” is to assure that the schools’ CEO is not sliding unapproved contracts past the board and then forging board minutes to conceal her actions.

No telling what else independent reviewers, Adams and Reese, might discover.

IMG_1469

Michelle Blouin-Williams

____________________________________________________________________________________

Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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From → Charters, Ethics

7 Comments
  1. Daedalus permalink

    Another question is: ‘Who are (is?) Adams and Reese’? Is this actually an independent outfit, or is it an outfit that is called in to paper over a serious situation?

    • Adams and Reese is a New Orleans law firm. Not likely it has been hired as a front. Too much documentation already made public.

  2. Robert Tellman permalink

    Paul Pastorek is (or was) a partner at Adams and Reese. How independent do you expect them to be?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. New Orleans’ Kennedy High School Grading Fiasco and Perforated Accountability | deutsch29
  2. Mercedes Schneider On NOLA Charter Chaos | Diane Ravitch's blog

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