Judge tosses DC’s 2nd attempt to collect tuition at Duke Ellington School

WASHINGTON — An incredulous D.C. Superior Court judge criticized the manner in which the District of Columbia is seeking to prove its claim of enrollment fraud at prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts, saying, “Someone is having trouble following the law.”

In an emergency hearing in a civil case filed by nine parents of Ellington students who were flagged as nonresidents of the District, Judge Joan Zeldon said two form letters sent to parents “aren’t even close” to being sufficient to prove they are committing fraud.

Zeldon said the District could, and should, make sure that only residents receive free tuition at Ellington, but that both attempts to craft an appropriate letter had failed.

D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education sent a three-paragraph letter to parents May 9, which Zeldon said “utterly fails” to explain the basis of the determination. A follow-up two-page form letter, dated May 24, explained parents had 10 days to prove residency or pay the out-of-District tuition.

“You have to give the basis for each student — what’s so difficult about that?” said Zeldon. “This is a case in the public eye.”

Zeldon warned lawyers for the District that she would dismiss the second letter if D.C. didn’t withdraw it, and added that the implied threat to parents and students “makes this an emergency.”

“They’re scared to death about what you’re going to do,” Zeldon said. “They do not have to live in fear.”

After Zeldon’s comments, Robert Rush, a lawyer for the District,  asked for guidance on what would satisfy regulations, in the judge’s eye.

“It’s not my duty to give you guidance on how to practice law, but give this a try: ‘We believe Jane Doe’s residence in Maryland is this address,'” Zeldon suggested.

Deferential, Rush said the District would try again to craft a satisfactory letter. He repeated an earlier statement that current students would be allowed to finish the school year.

Representing the aggrieved parents, attorney Greg Smith asked the judge to order the investigation into each family’s residency be turned over to that family. Smith said “historically, that’s how it’s always been done in D.C.”

However, Zeldon was unwilling to issue that order, saying an appropriate letter from the District would suffice.

For now, the pressure facing Ellington parents was released.

“This case is dismissed. It’s over. Start again,” she said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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