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D.C. schools target enrollment fraud

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D.C. public schools officials routinely check their rolls for out-of-city children enrolled under false addresses to avoid tuition. When discovered, their families usually either pay up or remove the students. Some of those investigations, however, are finding their way to federal prosecutors.

In November, a Prince George’s County mother was charged with felony fraud, fined and sentenced to four years of probation. And prosecutors are reviewing another Maryland mother’s case.

Officials say it’s not uncommon for nonresident families to enroll children in the District’s schools. Some prefer them to their neighborhood options, they say, while others choose them for commuting ease. Many enroll their children legally.

The involvement of prosecutors in enrollment investigations is unusual and an aggressive approach that observers say has rarely been adopted. It also coincides with the introduction of legislation that would tighten residency enforcement by creating a hotline for tips and raising fines to $2,000 from $500.

“The objective is to not to just lock people up but to have quality schools and for D.C. residents to attend these quality schools,” said D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who sponsored the legislation. “If you don’t live in the District, then you can pay out-of-state fees.”

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, would not comment on the case under investigation, but he said the latest cases were the first of their kind in recent memory. Court observers could not recall a case in which parent had served time for an enrollment-related offense involving D.C. schools.

It has happened elsewhere: An Akron, Ohio, woman spent nine days in jail this year for using her father’s address to enroll her daughters in what she believed were “better and safer” schools. Kelley Williams-Bolar, 41, was sentenced to five years in prison, which an Ohio judge suspended.

Last month, D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. sentenced Raynell Redd, 40, of Oxon Hill to one year in jail for felony fraud after she pleaded guilty to lying about her residency.

Between 2006 and 2010, prosecutors said, Redd forged utility bills and other documentation to enroll her four children, including an infant enrolled in a day-care center, in D.C. schools.

Redd pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in exchange for prosecutors dropping the other charges. She also agreed to pay more than $8,000 in back tuition to the day-care center. Dixon suspended Redd’s jail sentence, ordering community service and four years of probation.

Redd’s attorney, Martin Rosendorf, said Redd was between residences in Maryland and the District because of marital problems and did not want to keep pulling her children out of school or leave them with relatives in the District.

Nonresident tuition is a financial windfall for the District’s schools. According to recent figures, the school system assessed more than $813,000 in tuition last school year, although it only collected $627,350, according to spokesman Frederick Lewis.

During that same school year, the schools investigated 193 students after receiving anonymous calls and tips from school officials. Of those children, 83 were confirmed as nonresidents; in 14 cases, families paid tuition between $9,125 and more than $12,000, Lewis said. The remaining students were withdrawn.

Williams-Bolar now speaks to lawyers and educators about education reform. She is scheduled to appear Tuesday at the Miller & Chevalier law firm in the District at a fundraiser for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, which represented her during her appeal. She was ultimately granted clemency.

While in jail, Williams-Bolar said during a recent telephone interview, she kept to herself, sleeping two hours a night, reading a Bible and keeping a journal with a small pencil and sheets of paper towels.

Williams-Bolar said she understands the lengths parents go to get the best possible education for their children. “I want to be part of a parents’ movement for equal education,” she said.

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