By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer

A group of concerned parents, and staff from Duke Ellington School of the Arts sat behind a small wooden desk during the State Board of Education (SBOE) public meeting Dec. 19 with one purpose – to get answers.

“This was a good opportunity for us to educate them [SBOE]”, said Duke Ellington parent Greg Smith, “about the larger picture of what’s going on. I hope this’ll be the beginning of more.”

Duke Ellington School of the Arts parent Winston Clarke(left) and the school’s CEO Tia Powell Harris (center) at the State of Board of Education on Dec. 19 meeting following last school year’s allegations that two-thirds of the student body were not District residents.

Smith and parents like him have spent a lot of time in meetings, press conferences and even court rooms as of late.

In May 2018 the Office of the State Superintendent Of Education (OSSE) revealed a Report on Residency Investigation at Duke Ellington High School stating in part that:

“OSSE’s investigation revealed significant and systemic issues of non-compliance with the requirements of residency verification at Ellington. Based on this investigation, OSSE has deemed a total of 164 of the 570 investigated students to be non-residents, without tuition agreements in place,” the report wrote.  “A total of 56 students remain under investigation, as the information obtained about their actual place of residence is thus far inconclusive. An additional 46 students were found to be non-residents with existing tuition agreements with the District. A total of 304 students were confirmed as D.C. residents.”

Letters were sent out to some 220 families alleging of residency fraud. Some parents including Smith, who as an attorney represented them, pushed back filing a lawsuit against OSSE. During a press conference, it was discovered that OSSE attorney’s withdrew the letters sent to parents, this according to reporting done by the AFRO.

“I mean any time a D.C. agency accuses hundred of people of fraud and is wrong two thirds of the time or more I think that that is a serious problem,” Smith said,  “and worth the City Council investigating. So I hope they will.”

Smith said in a statement that OSSE admitted that two-thirds of their allegations were incorrect.

Tia Powell Harris, CEO at Duke Ellington was at the helm and rode out the storm of false allegations and the tsunami of effects it had on the school- from funding issues, to weathering a media storm and, most hurtful, students missing school while residency challenges were sorted out.

“I think the motivating factor for all of us was that this never happen again,” Powell Harris said after offering her testimony. “So our goal to bring light to the inadequacies of the system and the process and the people putting it forward so that no one again has to be unjustly accused. And secondly, that a school that a school doesn’t get bashed by a governmental agency.”

“We need to say out loud and for the record that this can’t be left up to insinuation,” Powell Harris told the AFRO. “Somebody in charge needs to say these things out loud. We look forward to the future and to bring attention to the fact that we have indeed been vindicated.”

Powell-Harrised added that the school, or parents have yet to receive an apology, or any information regarding the students’ residency.

The Board sat and listened and offered apologies, yet it was apparent that the room was missing key people.

“I am incredibly disappointed that the superintendent is not here to hear your testimony this evening nor is her chief of staff whom I’ve spoken to on multiple occasions,” said Jack Jacobson of the SBOE, referring to Superintendent Hanseul Kang. “This is just another attack on the arts in D.C.”

“It breaks my heart when these families and children, who have to opportunity to do something great, and the system does not work on their behalf. That’s a big problem.”

Winston Clarke who was one of the early parents to receive letters regarding his son, showed in the end for the parents who couldn’t be there.

“So I think it’s a bigger issue that I don’t know how much things are going to get done,” Clarke said. “We’re talking about a process that’s obviously flawed. They have to fix the communication.”

“I needed to show up to have that voice for a lot of parents that can’t speak in front of people- are afraid about their own personal situation.  I wanted to be consistent and show other families I am on aboard with them.”

A representative from OSSE, or the D.C. Council  could not be reached for comment.