The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

At the renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, an investigation has uncovered signs of prevalent enrollment fraud. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Alarming news reached the upper ranks of D.C. Public Schools in spring 2013. In a city where families from Maryland have been known to illegally send their children to the public schools at the expense of District taxpayers, a new perpetrator had been found.

She sat in the chancellor’s office.

Angela Williams-Skelton, executive assistant to then-schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, was driving her grandchildren from the home they shared in Frederick, Md., to attend Miner Elementary School in Northeast Washington, an internal investigation found. The children’s mother, who also lived with Williams-Skelton, had allegedly evaded more than $130,000 in tuition payments required for students who live outside the District, according to current and former city officials.

Residency fraud is a persistent problem in the District’s traditional and public charter schools, contributing to a severe shortage of seats at desirable campuses. But Henderson did not act for another six months.

“Kaya does not want to fire Angie,” Henderson’s top adviser wrote in an August 2013 email obtained by The Washington Post. He said the chancellor “would be okay removing her from DCPS and finding her a soft landing at another agency.”

Williams-Skelton ultimately was forced out. A case against her daughter was forwarded to the attorney general’s office, but it took no action.

That outcome was no anomaly.

A Post examination of records dating back five years, as well as interviews with current and former school officials, indicate that residency fraud in the public schools is widespread and enforcement is spotty. The system has been abused even by public officials well versed in the rules. Among those alleged to have improperly enrolled their children are a celebrated principal and a teacher of the year.

Even when fraud has been confirmed, it can take years for the city to recover its money.

Since 2013, education officials have investigated and referred 182 residency fraud cases to the attorney general’s office. Just 39 — fewer than 1 in 4 — led to settlements or enforcement actions. During the same period, the attorney general has collected approximately 20 percent of the $1.5 million families were required to pay as the result of settlements or court judgments.

Robert Marus, a spokesman for D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), said parents found liable frequently agree to pay in installments over years, which accounts for the discrepancy between fines and tuition owed and what has been collected.

Not every referral from the school system merits enforcement, he said. The office’s lawyers “must perform an independent review of the evidence presented and the facts of the case to determine if further action is merited and is likely to produce a positive result, either through a judgment or settlement, that would justify the use of our limited resources,” he said.

The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the oversight agency for both the traditional public school system and the city’s charter schools, is in charge of monitoring enrollment and collecting nonresident tuition from students who live in Virginia or Maryland. It is also responsible for fraud investigations at charter schools and — as of last year — in the traditional system, which previously investigated its own cases.

Yet the agency employs just one full-time residency investigator for a school system of 92,000 students. In late 2017, that investigator was handling more than 600 cases.

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In an interview last week, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang could not say how much tuition her office has collected from parents in recent years. She also could not explain the process by which nonresident families pay tuition or identify which staff members are responsible for ensuring that payments are made.

Kang said her staff would research those questions and follow up. A spokesman later said the agency bills parents and collects tuition through an online system, but did not provide further details about the process of tracking payments.

“Our policies and practices for how we’re documenting each case — the time when payments are owed, the actual payments due and following up with families as they run into being late or delinquent on their payments — has not always been as consistent in the past as we would want it to be,” said Kang, who was appointed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in 2015.

“We’re in the process now of drafting clear policies,” Kang said. “This is an area that we’ve known is an area we need to improve on, and we’ve been working on putting these systems in place.”

A vulnerable system

Such measures have become urgent after revelations of potentially widespread enrollment fraud at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, one of the most acclaimed public high schools in the nation’s capital. An ongoing investigation at Ellington, first reported by The Post, has compounded political headaches for the mayor on the heels of other recent scandals in a school system that had been celebrated by education reformers.

The issues detected at Ellington are just the latest symptom of a long-festering problem, according to current and former school officials.

In the District, public school students must re-enroll annually, verifying their D.C. residency ­every spring with documents such as utility bills or signed leases.

For some D.C. students, residency problems are a side effect of fractured lives: Proving residency is no easy task for children who are homeless or who shuttle between relatives in unstable families.

Deliberate acts of fraud, by contrast, can happen for many reasons: the desire to attend a high-performing public school, to take advantage of the city’s free preschool programs or to simplify morning drop-off for parents who commute to work in the city.

Fraud can take many forms. Parents who live outside the city might simply use the D.C. address of a friend or relative. Or they may take more elaborate steps — such as falsifying a lease, surrendering guardianship of a child to a District resident or even renting an inexpensive apartment within city limits.

As the sophistication of fraud techniques — sometimes aided by software or document templates available online — has grown, enforcement has not kept pace.

“These people, whether it’s registrars or central office staff, they’re not document experts,” said a former DCPS official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the problem of enrollment fraud. “It is a system that can be gamed fairly easily if you are intent on doing that, and it’s fairly consequence-free.”

For the past decade, the problem of enrollment fraud, while widely acknowledged, has taken a back seat to improving classroom instruction and student test scores.

School officials say they are taking the problem seriously. “Ensuring that D.C. families have access to D.C. schools is deeply important,” Kang said.

But she said proving residency should not be so burdensome that it keeps out undocumented immigrants or students with complicated custody arrangements.

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Interim chancellor Amanda Alexander, who leads the traditional public schools, said her staff has been vigilant regarding fraud in the past and will continue to be. She said cases of school officials investigated for alleged residency fraud show that the system is working.

“We hold our employees to a very high bar. This behavior is unacceptable,” she said. “When we are made aware of those cases, we act on them, including termination.”

'Similar shenanigans'

Of the six residency fraud cases currently pending in D.C. Superior Court, four involve at least one current or former school employee.

One defendant is Perea Brown-Blackmon, who was named D.C.’s 2012 teacher of the year and was celebrated by the state superintendent at the time as a model for “what teachers throughout the District can aspire to be.”

In a lawsuit filed in July 2017, the attorney general’s office alleged that Brown-Blackmon and her ex-husband enrolled their children at some of the District’s most coveted schools, including Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High, over multiple years.

The city is seeking about $270,000 in alleged damages from unpaid tuition in the case and an additional $146,000 from Brown-Blackmon individually for her alleged violation of the District’s False Claims Act.

As of last month, she was employed by the school system, earning a salary of $114,000, according to public records.

In a separate case related to the improper enrollment of the children of her current husband, Jonathan Blackmon — a former D.C. public school teacher — the city is seeking $89,000 from Brown-Blackmon. Blackmon and his ex-wife are being sued for $148,000 in allegedly unpaid tuition.

Blackmon, answering the door on a recent weekday at the Clinton, Md., address identified in court documents as his and Brown-Blackmon’s home, confirmed they both live there but declined to comment on the residency fraud case.

Brown-Blackmon, who in court documents disputed the allegations, said her attorney had advised her not to comment. Her attorney also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

In May 2015, school leaders announced that Leckie Elementary School Principal Atasha M. James was among principals offered three-year contracts — as opposed to the standard one-year appointments — in recognition of their success.

The same month, according to a former school official, a year-old internal investigation concluded that James and her husband, Shomari James, were illegally sending two of their children to D.C. schools while living in Maryland.

Even after that finding, how­ever, James led Leckie for another year and hosted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at her school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016.

As the next school year began, James was put on administrative leave. She then resigned, her husband said in a recent interview.

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Speaking to a reporter recently at the 4,000-square-foot home the Jameses own in a quiet Upper Marlboro subdivision, he said his wife lives at a separate address in Southeast Washington and that the allegations against them were “totally inaccurate.” He said the couple still has children in D.C. schools but declined to say whether they now pay tuition.

He subsequently shared a written statement he said was from Atasha James.

“Despite the lack of evidence, my husband and I thought that the best way forward for our family was not to pursue a lengthy litigation, agree to a settlement with the District, and for me to resign my position,” the statement reads.

In two legal settlements in 2016 and 2017, the Jameses agreed to pay $30,000 to the District but did not admit wrongdoing. In April 2017, they co-founded a nonprofit group to create a charter school in Prince George’s County.

The case involving the grandchildren of Williams-Skelton, Henderson’s executive assistant, was referred to the attorney general’s office for review and possible action in early 2013. The school system’s investigation had determined that the children were enrolled using a D.C. address that was actually a senior-living facility, according to a current and a former city official with knowledge of the probe.

Marus, the spokesman for the attorney general, said it was office policy not to confirm or discuss referrals on which the office took no action.

Williams-Skelton and her daughter, Keonia Skelton, could not be reached for comment.

During the investigation, in a written response to questions about her grandchildren’s residency from the Office of School Security, Williams-Skelton said she did not recall what years her grandchildren attended Miner Elementary. Asked if she knew that her daughter was not a D.C. resident, she answered, “Nope.”

Although Williams-Skelton was not the children’s parent, her knowledge of and involvement in the alleged ruse “was sufficiently egregious that it warranted her to leave her position,” said a former DCPS official, who requested anonymity to discuss a personnel matter.

Henderson was reluctant to take action against her assistant, in part because of her belief “that there are lots of DCPS employees who engage in similar shenanigans,” Pete Weber, her chief of strategy, wrote to other school officials in an August 2013 email.

Henderson and Weber did not respond to requests for comment.

In a Sept. 15, 2013, email to her staff, Henderson wrote that ­Williams-Skelton declined to take a job in a different agency and opted to step down. She was terminated on Sept. 25, according to a spokeswoman for DCPS.

Promised reforms

The extent of the District’s school residency fraud problem is unknown.

Bowser says trust in education system ‘needs to be rebuilt’

The city’s traditional public schools and charter schools generated 155 tips about residency fraud last year, according to an annual report submitted to the D.C. Council by the state superintendent’s office.

Until 2017, a D.C. Public Schools investigator handled fraud probes of the traditional public schools, while the state superintendent hired private investigators to look into residency at charter schools.

Kang, the state superintendent, said that was not effective, leading to the decision to rely on in-house investigators instead.

“The level of the documentation and the consistency of the casework was not always what we needed,” she said. Kang and her staff were unable to provide any details of work done by the agency’s private investigators or provide copies of their contracts.

Warning signs appeared at Ellington at least two years ago, when an annual audit of student enrollment found that 40 of Ellington’s roughly 500 students could not document their D.C. residency.

Alexander and Kang could not say why that did not trigger a broader investigation. But Kang said her office was taking the current Ellington probe “very seriously” and expected it to be complete by the end of this month.

In neighboring Montgomery County, Md., where the public school system has almost twice as many students as the District, a spokesman said 52 employees spend at least part of their time on residency investigations. Last fiscal year, the system investigated 225 residency claims and found 135 of those families lived outside the county.

In Virginia’s Fairfax County, the school district’s central office employs 15 attendance officers whose duties include investigating residency fraud. A spokesman said fewer than 100 students were found to be living outside Fairfax County each year for the past eight years.

The District currently has a single investigator responsible for all residency fraud cases.

“That’s a joke,” said Philip Becnel, a private investigator who scrutinized student residency at D.C. charter schools from 2012 through 2014. “That’s completely inadequate. Proving these cases is incredibly difficult. We use teams of investigators to investigate one case, two- or three-person teams.”

Kang said her office is hiring two additional full-time investigators and noted that the mayor’s budget proposal includes $300,000 in new funding for fraud probes.

Joe Weedon, whose children attend D.C. public schools and who represents Ward 6 on the D.C. State Board of Education, said residency fraud is “a big deal” to District parents, many of whom struggle to find seats for their children at desirable campuses. “We live in a competitive environment, so when a nonresident is taking a seat at a school, especially a school that is in demand, that’s a concern,” he said.

“From the fiscal side of things,” he added, “that’s dollars that are going to that student and not District residents.”

While residency fraud committed by school employees breeds mistrust among parents, Weedon said, it sends an even more damaging message to children.

“What does it say to our students?” he said. “That it’s okay to not follow the rules when you benefit?”

Valerie Strauss, Dan Morse and Perry Stein contributed to this report.