A residency battle rages at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (Courtesy of waymarketing.com)
A residency battle rages at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (Courtesy of waymarketing.com)

After a D.C. Superior Court judge criticized city officials in the way they’ve sought to prove its civil claims of enrollment fraud at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Councilman David Grosso said it’s time to carefully review and finally straighten out the matter.

“Last month, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued findings of non-residency against a number of students at Ellington,” the at-large council member said. “It is unacceptable that a large number of non-resident students may be attending such a premier institution of learning at the expense of District taxpayers. However, any implicated family who legitimately has residency in the District should be able to provide proper documentation and resolve the issue.”

In an emergency hearing in the civil case filed by nine parents of Ellington students who were flagged as nonresidents of the District, Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon said two form letters sent to parents “aren’t even close” to sufficient proof that they intentionally committed fraud.

Zeldon said the District could, and should, make sure that only residents receive free tuition at Ellington, but that both attempts to craft an appropriate letter had failed.

D.C.’s OSSE sent a three-paragraph letter to parents May 9, which Zeldon said “utterly fails” to explain the basis of the determination, according to WTOP.

A follow-up two-page form letter, dated May 24, explained parents had 10 days to prove residency or pay the out-of-District tuition.

“You have to give the basis for each student — what’s so difficult about that?” Zeldon said. “This is a case in the public eye.”

Zeldon warned lawyers for the District that she would dismiss the second letter if D.C. didn’t withdraw it and added that the implied threat to parents and students “makes this an emergency,” WTOP reported

“They’re scared to death about what you’re going to do,” Zeldon said. “They do not have to live in fear.”

Robert Rush, a lawyer for the District, asked for guidance on what would satisfy regulations in the judge’s eye.

“It’s not my duty to give you guidance on how to practice law but give this a try: ‘We believe Jane Doe’s residence in Maryland is this address,’” Zeldon suggested.

Rush said the District would try again to craft a satisfactory letter. He repeated an earlier statement that current students would be allowed to finish the school year.

Representing the aggrieved parents, attorney Greg Smith asked the judge to order the investigation into each family’s residency be turned over to that family.

Smith said “historically, that’s how it’s always been done in D.C.”

However, Zeldon was unwilling to issue that order, saying an appropriate letter from the District would suffice.

For now, the pressure facing Ellington parents was released.

“This case is dismissed. It’s over. Start again,” she said.

Grosso said his office has spoken with families and, while he fully supports OSSE rigorously enforcing residency requirements, there must also be an opportunity for families to resolve inaccuracies.

“I am calling today on the mayor and attorney general to figure out a way to quickly and fairly resolve these circumstances so that families can move on or avail themselves of the due process rights that they are owed,” Grosso said.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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