After lawsuit from Ellington parents, DC agrees to redo residency fraud notices

D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts is seen in this 2018 photo. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON — More than 100 students at D.C.‘s Duke Ellington School of the Arts accused of improperly attending the school have been granted a temporary reprieve, after a judge faulted the city for its handling of an investigation into student residency.

After a court hearing Wednesday, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent for Education, or OSSE, agreed to withdraw notices sent earlier this month to 164 students at the performing arts school who were deemed to be ineligible based on their residency.

A lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court earlier this week on behalf of eight parents claimed OSSE rushed the process for informing parents their residency was being challenged and didn’t tell parents they had 10 days to appeal the city’s finding.

The parents’ suit was dismissed after D.C. agreed to withdraw the initial notices.

Greg Smith, an Ellington parent and an attorney, said OSSE violated a myriad of protocols in its handling of the residency fraud investigation.

Smith said he’s aware of at least one case in which OSSE would not accept an appeal from a parent who attempted to submit one at the office and that, instead, OSSE was referring parents to speak with a prosecutor in the D.C. attorney general’s office.

“There was a rush to judgment where OSSE declared fraud without ever talking to any of these people,” Smith said. “Can you imagine?”

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, OSSE said it will issue new letters to parents informing them they have 10 days to contest auditors’ findings.

The office is “now prepared to move forward with administrative enforcement” against families deemed to be non-D.C. residents and improperly attending the school without paying tuition.

D.C.’s decision to withdraw the initial letters came the same day Ellington parents and students held a news conference on the school’s grounds in Georgetown to draw attention to families who they contend are D.C. residents but have been swept up in the investigation.

Sophomore Sofia Klena is one of 164 students OSSE deemed ineligible based on her residency.

“My mother pays D.C. taxes. I’m a lawful resident of the District of Columbia,” said Klena, a student in the school’s coveted literary media and communications track.

Klena said she applied to Duke Ellington before making the move from Pennsylvania to the District two years ago, calling into question which records the office reviewed in its investigation.

“To be clear, we do not support fraud. But to be clear, most of these students belong here and are supposed to be here,” said Eric Easter, who helped organize the event Wednesday. Easter, who said he’s a D.C. resident, said his son was cleared of any residency fraud.

Another sophomore Sofia Uria Gereka-Herburger questioned whether the city was living up to its mandate to provide public education, adding students plan to protest outside OSSE’s headquarters on May 30 “for the rights students deserve.”

In its investigation, OSSE said Ellington school officials had been lax about checking students’ residency and when auditors looked more closely — based on utility bills, rent receipts, pay stubs and other information — they said they uncovered falsified documents.

Organizers said they know of 70 students who have D.C. residency but were issued letters by OSSE. Few know exactly why they are under investigation, Smith said.

Each student’s case is different. Some are unaware of why they were flagged with a residency violation, others now live with guardians. Others have moved out of D.C. citing the cost of living but their parents maintain a residence in the city. In the case of Winston Clarke’s son, he said he provided proof of residency yet was still deemed ineligible.

“How do you tell someone that they’re not a D.C. resident if you hand deliver it to their D.C. home,” Clarke said during the news conference.

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report. 

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