By Hamzat Sani, James Wright and Lenore Adkins, Special to the AFRO
On May 23 Duke Ellington School of the Arts parents held a press conference laying out their grievances, frustrations and the details of a lawsuit against the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). The lawsuit comes after an OSSE investigation found a third of the students had been enrolled as District residents although they lived elsewhere, thus dodging tuition.
The suit was filed by Ellington parent and lawyer, Greg Smith, in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia May 21. According to a press release, the purpose of the lawsuit was “to correct and delay an inefficient and ineffective auditing and investigative system that, unfortunately, has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable families who are longtime D.C. residents.”
The press conference revealed that in a appearance before D.C. Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon, OSSE’s attorneys withdrew the letters.
“Everybody’s letter has been withdrawn,” Smith told a gathering of 50 students and Ellington staff in front of the school. “It is my hope that they will work with us.”
In their Complaint for A Declaratory Judgment, Temporary Restraining Order and Injunction, Ellington parents noted several issues with OSSE’s actions including not providing them with the mandatory notice of a 10 business day window to respond and have their case reviewed; a failure of the OSSE notice letter to let parents know that they did not have to un-enroll their student immediately, instead indicating that their children “thus is ineligible to attend a District school tuition-free.”
The suit closely mirrored a letter drafted by Smith on behalf of Ellington Parents to D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang and cc’ing Mayor Bowser and members of City Council sent May 14.
In it Smith alludes to an investigation that has alienated school officials, parents, students and administrators. The letter also asserts parents believe that Ellington was singled out and unfairly treated, as opposed to “exploring DCPS’s 90 schools equally, seeking wrongdoers citywide.”
“OSSE focused its limited resources on Ellington, and then proceeded within our school on a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach,” the letter stated.
The letter also notes that for the past five years OSSE itself has audited, cleared and signed off on all of Ellington’s students further confusing parents about why the agency would now claim non-compliance. Smith alludes to a belief by some that there are ulterior motives at play citing the school’s recent reopening in affluent, predominantly White, Georgetown, while most students at the performing arts schools are Black.
“While there is no mass incarceration from these latest events, there has been a similar demonization of this predominantly African-American school.”
Winston Clarke is a parent who received a letter from OSSE challenging his child’s residency and he was incensed.
“The letter I received was telling me that I am a criminal,” Clarke said. “They were telling me I wasn’t a D.C. resident and they hand delivered the address to my D.C. home. I am a D.C. resident, my wife is a D.C. resident and so is my child.
“I wished they could have simply asked me whether I was a D.C. resident. I am glad that everything was thrown out and we will have to wait for the next phase,” Clarke told the AFRO.
Though the initial letters were thrown out, Smith made it clear that parents whose children are enrolled in Ellington, but do not live in the District, should pay the tuition or leave. However, he said the process must be much better managed by OSSE.
“They need to send the list to the school on who is there illegally,” he said. “We should also have access to the investigatory files and have the ability to meet with OSSE officials informally on this. We need for them to show us what you got.”