The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families accused of Ellington residency fraud wonder if there’s a prequel

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To my surprise, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is still embarrassing itself with a sloppy and unnecessarily traumatic investigation of residency fraud at one of the District’s best public schools, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

When I wrote about this two weeks ago, I assumed that the OSSE would get from the school the most recent home addresses of the people being investigated, instead of sending threatening letters to out-of-date locations. An OSSE spokesman said that has been done. But many families said they have received no notice from the OSSE at the mailing address the school uses.

The investigation has been so clumsy, after a claim in May that more than a quarter of Ellington’s 570 students were attending the school fraudulently, that many parents and teachers sense a secret agenda. They worry that politicians are trying to eliminate Ellington because Georgetown residents want the school’s building to serve just their kids.

I don’t think that’s true, but I don’t blame those who wonder. Some Ellington parents have been cleared of the accusation that they reside outside the District and haven’t been paying the $12,000 in annual tuition required of students who live in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. But that hasn’t made them any happier with the OSSE.

“The fact that tax dollars were spent on an investigation of us — it bothers me a lot,” said Laura Flegel, who has been living with her partner in Adams Morgan for 27 years. She recently got an official letter saying in essence: Whoops, sorry — you’re not a miscreant after all. It did not placate her.

She cited D.C. Council members talking about “taking back what used to be Western High School,” a neighborhood campus that Ellington turned into a magnet school for the whole city in 1974. Removing Ellington from Georgetown was a big issue in 2010, when D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) supported a plan to relocate it to the Union Station area, closer to the homes of many of its students. Ellington parents and students reacted angrily, with online petitions and a Facebook group with more than 1,700 members. The D.C. schools chancellor said it would stay put.

This March, the DC Urban Moms and Dads website published a letter to OSSE from D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) criticizing its handling of the residency issue and saying she thought the school “could be bifurcated into two campuses, Duke Ellington and Western High School, to help address crowding at Wilson High School.”

Ellington’s student body is 77 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white, 2 percent Asian and 3 percent multiracial. Most students are from low-income families. Applicants have to audition. It is not only famous for its music, dance and drama, but ranks in the top 8 percent of U.S. high schools in taking Advanced Placement tests in a wide range of academic subjects.

David Greene is one of the parents accused of residency fraud. “OSSE concluded that we are still residents of Maryland based on the fact that we owned a property there from 2008-2014,” he said in a letter to three D.C. Council members. The investigators told him that his documentation of D.C. residence appeared to be false because “the address on the documentation is a home owned by a senior receiving the homestead deduction.” Greene said he is the renter, not the owner, of the property.

Greene said the sale of his Maryland home in 2014 is a matter of public record. He has had a valid D.C. driver’s license since 2015. He is registered to vote in the District. He got a D.C. jury summons and did his service in June. He has been paying D.C. taxes since 2015.

He is confident that he will be cleared, but what about parents who don’t have his advantages? “I am really worried that there are Ellington families for whom this is and will continue to be an overwhelming burden,” he said. “This investigation not only seems flawed and unfair, it seems mean.”

IAmEllington, a group of families helping the accused parents, grandparents and guardians, estimates that as many as 40 of the families under investigation may not know it because the OSSE has not used their correct home addresses. IAmEllington has warned parents that if they do not appeal the accusations, “you will automatically owe back tuition and your student could be disenrolled immediately.”

Greg Smith, an Ellington parent and one of several attorneys working pro bono to help the accused, said he worries that even if more families are eventually ruled innocent, the red tape and disruption will cripple the program.

The accusations have already hurt Ellington’s fundraising and reputation. “The school is looking at an impending train wreck,” Smith said. That would benefit the effort to downsize or move the school. Which leads to a question: What started this investigation in the first place?