WASHINGTON — More than a quarter of students at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest D.C. are not District residents and are improperly attending the school without paying tuition, according to a new report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
The report revealed “significant and systemic issues” regarding residency fraud at Ellington, frequently cited as one of the District’s best high schools.
The report, published Friday, comes amid a wave of spiraling scandals within D.C. Public Schools, including one that led to the resignation of two of the top education officials in the mayor’s office.
Of the 570 students who attend the school, investigators who reviewed student records found 164 of them were found to be nonresidents of D.C. without tuition agreements in place.
Residents of Maryland and Virginia can attend D.C. public school as long as they shell out tuition. Ellington’s annual tuition is $12,000.
Another 56 students’ residency status remains under investigation because auditors said their actual place of residence was “inconclusive,” according to the report.
A total of 304 students at the school were confirmed to be D.C. residents; 46 were found to be Maryland or Virginia residents with the proper tuition agreements in place.
D.C. Council member David Grosso, who has harshly criticized the recent rash of D.C.P.S. missteps, seized on the report’s findings.
“Today’s report not only confirms the stunning depth of residency fraud at Duke Ellington, but also that the previous two chancellors had repeatedly lied to the Committee and the Council about how profound this problem is,” Grosso said in a statement. “I continue to grow frustrated with the lack of transparency from D.C. Public Schools and the Executive and this is the latest blow to their credibility.”
In part, the report faulted administrators at Ellington for failing to properly check students’ residency.
“The volume of records that were incomplete or otherwise inadequate to prove residency indicates, at minimum, a significant lack of oversight and internal controls at the school,” the report concluded.
The investigation also turned up reams of falsified or inauthentic documents on file at Ellington. These included bogus leases, rent receipt and paychecks that purported to show D.C. residency. The report said investigators also found several cases where parents provided addresses belonging to other family members, such as grandparents or aunts, to make it appear as if they lived in D.C. to qualify for tuition-free attendance.
The Office of the State Superintendent for Education said it is referring all 164 cases of residency fraud it uncovered to the D.C. Attorney General’s Office for further investigation. The office said it isn’t directing Ellington to pull those students from classes but that they must either demonstrate they are, in fact, D.C. residents or start paying tuition.
Just this week, 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.
For the 2018-2019 school year, independent staff outside of Ellington will take responsibility for checking residency. For the next five years, outside staff will verify 100 percent of all residency documentation, according to the report.
In February, The Washington Post reported that a preliminary check of residency records showed what appeared to be relatively widespread enrollment fraud at Ellington, but that state superintendent auditors were told by higher-ups to “take your time” with the investigation because “it’s an election year.”
That prompted a news conference by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in which she pledged a full review of enrollment fraud at the school.
Last month, the D.C. Inspector General reported that D.C. public schools had failed to properly vet student residency losing out at lest $169,000 in unpaid tuition, citing a sample of student records it had reviewed.
In January, the state superintendent released a report finding violations of attendance and graduation requirements at all but two D.C. high schools. About a third of students were found to have graduated despite excessive absences or because grades were improperly changed.
At Ballou High School, which was the subject of a damning WAMU-NPR investigation, D.C. officials found “a culture of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to pass students so they could receive their diploma,” according to the report.
Amid increased scrutiny over graduation rates, D.C.P.S. reported late last month that just 46 percent of high schools are on track to graduate this year. Last year, the graduation rate was 73 percent.
Separately, D.C. school Chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned in February after a little more than a year on the job after he admitted he violated school system policy by seeking to get a school transfer for his daughter out of the Ellington School. That incident also spurred the resignation of Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles.