The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Renowned D.C. high school plagued by enrollment fraud, investigation finds

More than 160 students — nearly 30 percent of the student body — at D.C.’s celebrated Duke Ellington School of the Arts live outside the city and are not paying the tuition required of suburbanites who attend the District’s public schools, an internal investigation has found.

The students’ cases have been forwarded to the D.C. attorney general’s office, which enforces laws against school residency fraud, city officials said Friday. Another 56 have been flagged for less clear-cut residency problems and are being given a week and a half to prove they live in the city, bringing the total number of students caught up in the fraud investigation to 220 out of the 570 enrolled at the Northwest Washington campus.

The D.C. inspector general and attorney general also are investigating how much Ellington administrators knew about the deceptive enrollments, city officials said.

The findings, which city officials announced Friday, come amid intensifying distrust of the District’s public schools, stoked by scandals involving inflated graduation rates and a former chancellor skirting enrollment rules for his daughter.

Established in 1974 with a mission of providing a free, first-class arts education to children in the nation’s capital, the school has a list of celebrity alumni that includes comedian Dave Chappelle. The city recently poured more than $170 million into renovating the Ellington campus, a project that drew criticism after it went $100 million over budget.

The tuition investigation, conducted by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, suggests that much of tax­payers’ investment at the school has benefited residents of Maryland or Virginia. Those students have also displaced District residents who otherwise could have enrolled at Ellington, which has a competitive admissions process.

Read the investigation into residency fraud at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

“That’s an amazing number and should make a lot of people uncomfortable as we try to figure out how that came to pass,” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said.

“Something like that doesn’t happen by accident,” she said. “People must have been looking the other way.”

David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee, said in a statement that the “stunning depth of residency fraud at Duke Ellington” showed that the school had neglected its obligations to children in the nation’s capital.

“The District of Columbia is full of brilliant young artists and ­musicians who deserve the ability to attend Duke Ellington,” Grosso said. “One of the premier public arts education programs in the country, the school should serve D.C. families first and foremost.”

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not attend a morning briefing for reporters on the investigation by State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, whom Bowser appointed in 2015. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and interim deputy mayor for education Ahnna Smith were at the briefing.

In a radio interview Friday on the “Kojo Nnamdi Show” on ­WAMU-FM, Bowser suggested the problems at Ellington did not reflect broader issues in the school system. She said Ellington is “a complete outlier” because of the scope of its residency fraud.

Bowser said nonresident students whose families were found to have enrolled them illegally would not be allowed to return to the school for the next two years. After that, if they want to re-enroll, they would have to pay tuition.

“It’s going to be corrected immediately,” the mayor said. “We will finish out this school year, and we will work with the attorney general on the disposition of those files.”

Racine said his office would move quickly to review the cases it has received, and he encouraged families who may have committed fraud to work with his attorneys to resolve the matter rather than try to evade punishment.

“The message to the parents who may have engaged in fraud is that if you did this, come now to the office of attorney general, come clean, try to resolve the matter,” Racine said. “We’ll treat you fairly.”

A report on the investigation said parents of Ellington students submitted “falsified or inauthentic documents” to prove D.C. residency, including bogus leases, receipts for rent and paycheck stubs.

The report states that the investigation began during the course of the state superintendent’s annual enrollment audit. When the agency visited the school, Kang said Friday, “We saw cases where there were multiple sets of files or conflicting information for the same students, or we saw files that claimed D.C. residence despite supporting documentation that clearly showed residence outside the District.”

As a result, the state superintendent’s office confiscated all the school’s student residency files.

Ariana Quinones, parliamentarian of Ellington’s parent-teacher organization, said she wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings,

“This has been an issue in D.C. schools forever, for as long as I remember,” said Quinones, whose daughter is a 12th-grader at the school.

She said the enrollment fraud sends children the message that “cheating is okay when you want it bad enough.”

Quinones, who lives in Manor Park, said she supports having parents pay back tuition, but she said she doesn’t want people’s credit and lives destroyed because of it.

The school has an unusual governing structure. Since 2000, Ellington has been run jointly by D.C. Public Schools, the nonprofit Ellington Fund, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and George Washington University. Although the school is funded by taxpayers, it is overseen by an independent board of directors.

That arrangement has clouded the question of whether school administrators will be held accountable for the findings of widespread fraud.

Smith said Duke Ellington’s leadership, including Principal Sandi Logan, are technically employees of the nonprofit Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project. As a result, Smith said, the school system has no power to discipline Ellington administrators.

Charles Barber, president of the board of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

The school’s chief executive, Tia Powell Harris, said in an email that Ellington officials “will be thoroughly reviewing and considering” the state superintendent’s findings but so far had been focused on improving the school’s residency verification process.

“At this point, we have no indication of any wrongdoing by our small but dedicated administrative team,” she said.

Probe points to widespread residency fraud at D.C. arts school

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education — which handles oversight of the District’s traditional public schools and charter schools — will re-examine that governance structure, require an independent verification of students’ residency for the next academic year and audit all ­Ellington students’ residency documents for the next five years, according to the report released Friday.

The agency also plans to retrain registrars at Ellington and other public schools in residency requirements.

Parents who live outside the District can send their children to the city’s public schools as long as they don’t displace D.C. residents and pay annual tuition of roughly $12,000. There are 46 such students who legally attend Ellington.

The recently concluded probe is focused on students whose parents claim to live in the District while living elsewhere, thus avoiding the fees.

The findings threaten a large segment of the school’s families with expensive litigation and potentially substantial fines. Just this week, the attorney general’s office filed residency fraud ­lawsuits seeking a combined $800,000 from two families.

The Washington Post reported earlier on the existence of the Ellington investigation.

Preliminary findings from the probe, which began in October, were shared in December at a meeting involving officials in the state superintendent’s and attorney general’s offices. At that meeting, officials learned that more than half of an initial sample of 100 student files reviewed had suspicious claims of D.C. residency.

Shortly after that, a lawyer in the state superintendent’s office told those handling the investigation in that office to “take your time” because of the risk of negative publicity during a mayoral election year, officials told The Post in February.

Stop enrollment fraud? D.C. teachers are often the ones committing it

Kang said she was unaware any employees in her office had been directed to delay the probe and said any such action would be “absolutely not acceptable.” She said she planned to look into the allegation.

Recent scrutiny has revealed broader problems in the school system’s ability to ensure that ­taxpayer-funded schools are reserved for D.C. residents. A single full-time investigator handles residency investigations for a school system of 92,000 students.

An audit released last month by the D.C. inspector general found lax enforcement of residency rules. The state superintendent’s office, which is supposed to enforce those rules, failed to collect nonresident tuition from many families and allowed nonresident students to remain in school even after their parents defaulted on payments, the audit found.

As news of their school’s enrollment scandal seeped into the city Friday, Ellington students walked to and from the porticoed entrance north of Georgetown or clustered on the sprawling front lawn. Some played down the investigation, saying it had not received much attention inside the school.

Cani Bryant, a 16-year-old who lives in Southeast Washington, said he hadn’t heard much about it.

He said students who live outside the District and can afford to pay tuition should, but he doesn’t hold anything against those whose families cannot.

“If they can’t afford it and they’re trying to come to a good school, then I would let them,” Bryant said. “They’re trying to get their education, and they’re trying to change their life and get a better chance in their life.”