By: Current News Staff Writer
A group of Duke Ellington School of the Arts students’ parents recently complained to the
District’s State Board of Education at a formal hearing that the Office of the State
Superintendent of Education (OSSE) falsely accused their children and many others of not being residents of the District.
As a result, the students were temporarily suspended from the school while the investigation about their residency continued. Prior to this past year, the District’s Public School System was responsible for investigating residency fraud. The Ellington parents at the hearing all told the Board they had proof of District residency. Prior to the Office of the State Superintendent taking over investigating fraud, Ellington’s Chief Executive Officer, Tia Powell Harris, told the Board of Education there had been no evidence of fraud and that the school’s records had been “repeatedly proven accurate.”
She told the Board that in spite of numerous offers to help the Office of the State
Superintendent with its investigation, Ellington’s offer was not answered. She said much of the Office’s investigation “was punitive in nature” toward the students adding there was only one questionable family. Students being investigated were pulled from classes. Quite a few missed a week of classes, some missed a month. “Students must be made to feel safe at school” and were not.
Greg Smith, an attorney who has a daughter who is a senior at Ellington who was not accused of residency fraud, told the Board, “What OSSE (the State Board) did was shocking. …The cardinal sin is for a DC family to be falsely accused. … Some of the falsely accused children were unable to take their SAT (College Board) tests.”
During the 2017-18 school year, Smith continued, “many parents naturally resubmitted the
same types of residency documentation that had been approved before, never expecting
problems. … In January 2018, OSSE issued a report stating it had flagged 74 of Ellington’s
students during its audit as deficient. Most of those students were discovered to have been
‘rejected’ for hyper-technical reasons – like parents filling a power bill that had preceded (rather than post-dated) the verified payment.
Ellington timely appealed all but 19 of these, and even of those 19, additional information came later, leading Ellington to ask OSSE to approve all but 2 as D.C. residents.
OSSE, continued Smith, demanded that all corrective materials had to be submitted within a 24-hour window.
OSSE, continued Smith, demanded that all corrective materials had to be submitted within a 24-houir window.
“Nor would OSSE even say when that 24-hour period would begin. … With 74 families to correct, it was a cruel game.” It succeeded in doing it for all but 19, he said.
When in May, Smith added, OSSE claimed that 164 Ellington students were nonresidents and that another 56 were under investigation. making 40% of Ellington’s student body “accused of actual or potential fraud.” Just weeks before some seniors were scheduled to graduate, many were told “they were among the 164 being ‘disenrolled.’”
OSSE’s report showed it had investigated every single Ellington student.
“There is a concept in the law,” Smith said, “just as Government can’t arrest without probable cause, it shouldn’t investigate without reasonable suspicion. Here they were investigating families on whom there was no suspicion.”
Smith told the board his daughter told him she felt “she had been followed
home one day.”
“None of the families had been contacted, (by OSSE) and neither had Ellington. Nor was Ellington even told who these 220 students were. … Even today, (at the time of the hearing) despite multiple requests, no one has ever shared OSSE’s lists with the school. We and the school continue to be kept in the dark.”
Many of the families, Smith said, received letters from OSSE “telling them they could not return to Ellington in the coming school year, and advising them they had been referred to the AG’s (Attorney General’s) office for possible legal action under the false Claims Act.”
When Smith tried to get a list of the families that had been accused, so they could be “aware of their rights to appeal (and needed to do so within 10 days),.. OSSE failed to respond, it became apparent that scores of our families were about to lose their rights.”
Smith sent three letters to OSSE, all of which he said were unanswered. “So I drafted and filed a …motion against OSSE in Superior Court a few days before the appeals deadline expired, on behalf of 8 named Ellington families plus all the others similarly situated.”
“The flaws in OSSE’s notice letter were so obvious that the DC government didn’t even try to defend them – in court, they agreed to withdraw the letters.” Afterwards he said he tried to arrange an informal meeting to solve the problems, “But OSSE stubbornly refused.”
With the OSSE letters lifted, the seniors were allowed to graduate. OSSE, said Smith, never informed the parents why they had been accused. Several parents, Smith said, spoke with City Council staff members and began to get results. OSSE sent out a third letter which advised parents of their rights and attached investigative summaries, which “revealed that many of their claims were either junk or simply raised technical deficiencies that were easily corrected.”
In November, OSSE put out an update admitting that two thirds of the Ellington families accused of fraud had “now already been exonerated.” Of the 220 families accused, just five, said Smith, “ever admitted to residency fraud.” Some of the families did not dispute the claims “because they “don’t want this stress in their lives.”
One student, whose family Smith said he now represents legally, “was escorted off of Ellington’s school grounds during the first week of this school years after OSSE claims his family had ‘conceded’ their residency fraud by not appealing. In truth, they had never gotten OSSE’s” notice until after their appeal deadline expired, since OSSE had mailed their letter to the wrong address. … This boy finally returned to the school after spending almost two months at home.”
In another case, Smith said he lent a family $5,000 to pay fines, but eventually the family won its case.
The overall result, said Smith, is that “Ellington has been harmed as an institution and valuable time that should have been spent on education and the arts was instead diverted to this overblown scandal. I think we now know what the real scandal here was.”
Smith called for OSSE to work collaboratively with the school’s administrators and should share its list of students thought to benon-residents.
Lucinda Woodland, a grandmother who said she had legal custody of an Ellington student since infancy, told the Board she eventually got a letter saying she is a legal resident, but “was never told why I was considered not to be a resident.” She said she did have a property in Prince George’s County. When she asked for a hearing, OSSE, she said, sent a letter to the wrong address. Four parents, Lisa Burkett, Yamilka Ramos, Maria Thompson-Pumphrey and Winston Clarke also testified.
Clarke said OSSE claimed his documentation appeared to be fraudulent, adding that his parents do live in Maryland. “We think OSSE didn’t understand the rules. … Our redress was only received due to legal counsel.”