By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO

An audit from the Office of the State Superintendent for Education released May 11 has found that nearly a third of the students enrolled at the acclaimed Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts were not residents of the District of Columbia and were not paying the tuition they should have as nonresidents.

The probe found that 164 students at the premier performing arts high school were non-residents who either lacked sufficient documentation to prove their residency or were labeled as non-residents by state superintendent’s office following the preliminary investigation, according to the report.  Non-District residents may attend Ellington if accepted, but are required to pay tuition; tuition was $12,800 last school year, according to Ellington’s website.  Those 164 students have not been paying tuition.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts, located in Georgetown, is under investigation after almost a third of the student body were found to be non-District residents. (Courtesy photo)

The state superintendent’s office is referring the 164 findings of non-residency cases to the D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to resolve their issues with his office for a limited time. While the state superintendent’s office isn’t ordering families to pull their students out of Ellington right away, every student has to prove his or her residency annually to re-enroll in District schools. Non-residents must pay all uncollected tuition by July 15, 2018.

In some of the non-resident findings, students provided residency documents that at first glance appeared to be sufficient and adequate documentation of actual District residency. But upon deeper investigation, they were shown to be insufficient or fraudulent.

The state superintendent’s office is investigating another 56 Ellington students because their information proved to be inconclusive following the probe, and those families have one last chance to prove they live in the District. All told, the probe has entangled 220 of 570 students enrolled at the coveted school near Georgetown.

In a statement, State Superintendent Hanseul Kang said she has directed Ellington and D.C. Public Schools to bring in additional personnel, resources and training to make sure all schools follow proper residency verification procedures and that D.C families get first crack at D.C. schools.  Parents or guardians found to have falsified their records will not be allowed to re-enroll their students at the school next year unless DCPS has allowed them to do so under the auspices of paying non-resident tuition.

“We take residency fraud seriously,” Kang said in the statement. “While we want to be sensitive to complex family situations that may make it more challenging to provide residency documentation, these cases from Duke Ellington School of the Arts cause significant concern and represent a serious lapse in oversight at the school level and at D.C. Public Schools.”

Non-compliance with residency rules is illegal, robs the D.C. government of needed revenue and deprives deserving District residents of the opportunity to study at award-winning schools like Duke Ellington, the school’s chief executive officer, Tia Powell Harris, wrote in a letter to parents following the results.

The audit’s results are a blow to the premier performing arts high school founded in 1974 that counts comedian Dave Chappelle and other notables as alumni.

It also comes at a time when the D.C. Public Schools system is reeling from scandal, following inflated graduation rates and the resignation of the previous chancellor who stepped down after it was revealed he bypassed residency rules and a waiting list to enroll his daughter in a competitive public high school.

The Washington Post reported that the D.C. Office of the Inspector General is investigating Ellington to determine whether staff members were in on the residency scandal. Jaime Yarussi, deputy inspector general for business management, told the AFRO that the office does not comment on ongoing matters.

When asked whether any staff members have faced disciplinary action in the wake of the probe, Harris told the AFRO over email that school officials will be thoroughly reviewing and considering the state superintendent’s findings. She added that they had been working to improve the school’s residency verification process ever since the superintendent’s office launched its investigation.

“At this point, we have no indication of any wrongdoing by our small, but dedicated administrative team,” Harris wrote in the email.

The state superintendent raised “no material residency concerns” when it ran audits in the past five years, Harris said in the letter. But this year, in light of increased systemwide scrutiny, the state superintendent cracked down on residency enforcement and implemented new policies for auditing school records.

Because the state superintendent found “troubling indications of potential residency fraud” at Ellington during the 2017 enrollment audit, it took the unprecedented step of seizing all of the school’s residency files to conduct an in-depth investigation of all its paperwork.