The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s Ellington School families sue city following investigation that found widespread enrollment fraud.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts was established in 1974 with a mission of providing a free, first-class arts education to children in the nation’s capital. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

Deneane Proctor still doesn’t understand why the government sent her a notice.

The mother said she has lived with her children in her mother-in-law’s Southeast Washington home for nearly four years. But this month, a city agency notified Proctor that her daughter was fraudulently enrolled in Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The reason? City officials said the family doesn’t live in the District.

That was wrong, the mother said.

Proctor tried to prove to education officials that she resides in the city but was informed that her case had been sent to the Office of the Attorney General.

Proctor and seven other Ellington families sued the city Monday, claiming the District violated their rights and failed to properly notify 164 families as it investigated allegations of widespread enrollment fraud at the prestigious performing arts school.

“What reason do they have to say that my daughter is not a D.C. resident? That reason was not given,” Proctor said. “I just hope they throw these cases out, and leave these kids alone.”

The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, comes in the wake of findings released this month that nearly 30 percent of the student body appeared to be living outside the District yet were not paying the tuition required of suburbanites who attend D.C. public schools.

The investigation found that some of the families submitted “falsified or inauthentic documents” to prove residency. The findings threaten a large segment of the school’s families with expensive litigation and potentially substantial fines.

The lawsuit claims that the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education — the agency that conducted the investigation — violated city policy and failed to give families the required 10 days to administratively appeal their fraud cases. Instead, the education agency sent their cases to the attorney general without the chance to appeal, according to the lawsuit.

Ellington parents say they’re being unfairly attacked following enrollment fraud investigation.

The eight Ellington families named in the lawsuit are asking the court to void the actions taken by OSSE , which sent notices to families May 9.

The state superintendent’s office referred requests for comment to the office of the deputy mayor for education, which declined to comment on pending litigation. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, whose agency would represent the city in the case, said his office is aware of the lawsuit and is reviewing it.

Greg Smith, a lawyer and Ellington parent who drafted the lawsuit, said some D.C. residents received the fraud notices at old addresses in Maryland and Virginia. He suspects that some families are unaware they have cases that have been sent to the attorney general.

Smith said he wants the court to void the notices by Wednesday — the deadline to appeal cases through the superintendent’s office. The lawsuit states that the notices did not explain what evidence the District has proving fraud, and that the families were unsure why they were implicated.

The superintendent’s office’s “notice letter is so deficient that it cannot fairly start Plaintiffs’ appeal clock, and must be declared null and void,” the suit states.

Lucinda Woodland, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast Washington and has legal guardianship of her granddaughter, said she can’t figure out why a notice landed at her door. Woodland, among those who joined the legal action, said city officials haven’t been responsive, and that it’s difficult to fight the allegation without knowing the basis for it.

“They just automatically sent it to the office of the attorney general, and I don’t know why they did that. They did not follow the process,” Woodland said. “It’s like we’re fighting something that’s there’s no truth to. It’s like you’re fighting a ghost, you don’t even know what you’re fighting.”

Smith, a Capitol Hill resident, is not accused of committing residency fraud and is representing the families free.

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

“We don’t want people to lose their rights,” he said. “We are very worried that a lot of people don’t even know their rights.”

The families also requested a restraining order against the superintendent’s office to prevent it from taking action on the notices.

Established in 1974 with a mission of providing a free, first-class arts education to children in the nation’s capital, Duke Ellington has a list of celebrity alumni that includes comedian Dave Chappelle, musician Meshell Ndegeocello and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. 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 D.C. inspector general and attorney general are investigating how much Ellington administrators knew about the enrollment fraud, city officials said when the investigation findings were released.

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.

Principal Sandi Logan said in an interview last week that the findings of the investigation were overblown and that many of the families who were implicated live in the District.

“I’m confident based on what I’m hearing that most of the families will be able to provide the documents to prove their residency,” Logan said.