FOR DISTRICT taxpayers, enrollment fraud — when non-residents enroll their children in the city’s public schools without paying tuition — is an especially touchy subject. The District is barred from imposing a commuter tax on Maryland and Virginia residents, so it adds insult to injury when suburbanites freeload in schools paid for with D.C. tax dollars. It would be understandable, even laudable, for D.C. officials to crack down on this long-standing problem. But the way in which they have gone about it — ensnaring some parents who are likely innocent — is not so commendable.

At issue is the city’s handling of its allegations of widespread enrollment fraud at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. A report last month by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) alleged that 164 students at the prestigious school — nearly 30 percent of the student body — live outside the city and failed to pay the required tuition. It followed up with letters to the parents accusing them of fraud and threatening severe penalties.

But the city was forced to withdraw the letters after a judge found them legally deficient in a civil case brought by parents who say that they were wrongly accused and that they can prove they live in the District. The city’s attempt at a do-over fared no better; last week it was forced to withdraw a second set of letters after being admonished by D.C. Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon that “someone is having trouble following the law.”

Among the issues the attorney for the parents spotlighted : the fact that most parents didn’t know they were under investigation until they received an OSSE letter; the OSSE’s refusal to tell them why their residency documentation had been rejected; the lack of opportunity for parents to refute charges before their cases were turned over to the Office of Attorney General, which is charged with pursuing enrollment fraud cases.

“How does one even accuse someone of fraud without ever trying to hear from them?” Greg Smith, an Ellington parent not accused of fraud but representing other parents pro bono, wrote to the deputy mayor for education.

He urged the city not to go ahead with plans to issue a third set of notice letters but to work with Ellington school officials, parents or an outside mediator to determine which cases of fraud are legitimate and should be pursued. “Why not sit down informally with us and try to separate the sheep from the goats first,” he wrote.

The city’s bungled handling of these matters raises questions about OSSE’s initial findings. The city would do well to heed Mr. Smith’s advice: Work quickly to resolve the cases of people who were wrongly caught up and properly focus resources on cases of real wrongdoing.

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