Duke Ellington parents sue; say DC rushed findings of enrollment fraud

WASHINGTON — Several parents of students deemed to be improperly attending the Duke Ellington School of the Arts are suing D.C. education officials over the handling of a report that found “significant” residency fraud at the prestigious performing arts high school.

The lawsuit, filed by eight parents in D.C. Superior Court, claims the Office of the State Superintendent for Education failed to follow its own rules when it declared more than a quarter of Ellington’s student population ineligible to attend the school, in part, because it failed to give parents a chance to appeal its findings.

About 70 families who actually reside in D.C. have been “caught up” in the probe because of “minor paperwork problems, said Eric Easter, who’s part of a group of parents concerned about the residency fraud investigation. Easter, whose son attends Ellington, said his residency was cleared by auditors.

The lawsuit claims OSSE failed to inform families of the reason for their finding of nonresidency and sent only brief form letters declaring the students ineligible. The suit claims the letters were illegal and seeks a temporary restraining order and injunction to block OSSE from following through on them.

Jack Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the office of the deputy mayor of education, told WTOP he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Overall, the May 11 OSSE report found 164 of about 570 Ellington students were not residents of the District and, therefore, not eligible for tuition-free enrollment at the school. Nonresidents may attend D.C. Public Schools but have to pay tuition. Annual tuition at Duke Ellington is about $12,000 a year.

In its report, OSSE said Ellington school officials were lax about checking students’ residency and when auditors began looking in more detail they uncovered reams of falsified documents, such as bogus leases, rent receipt and paychecks. OSSE said it verified students’ residency by searching property records, utility bills, driver’s license license information and publicly available information.

“We fully recognize that there are people who are probably cheating the system, and those people need to be dealt with smartly and fairly,” Easter told WTOP. “But it’s also been so broad that’s it caught up these actual D.C. families in this process.”

Easter said some of the families caught up in the investigation “turn out to be, in many ways, the most vulnerable of families,” and include homeless families and those living in transitional housing.

“These are people who are seniors and juniors and sophomores whose paperwork has been fine in the past and who actually live in D.C. who now have this hanging over their head two weeks before the end of the school year,” Easter added. “So you can imagine how that might throw a family into a panic, trying to remedy this situation.”

The OSSE report detailing widespread residency fraud at the school came amid a number of missteps in the D.C. Public School system, including falsified graduation and attendance records.

The same week the report on residency fraud at Duke Ellington was released, the attorney general’s office announced it was suing two sets of parents for hundreds of thousands of dollars over unpaid tuition bills stemming from residency fraud.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

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