News & Politics

DC Withdraws Letters to Duke Ellington Parents

A judge found notices sent to parents and guardians regarding residency status “deficient.”

Photograph via the DC Department of General Services.

The District of Columbia officially withdrew the 164 notices it had sent to the families of students who were flagged as non-residents of the District after an enrollment audit. The decision, which came in a brief DC Superior Court hearing this morning, was met with satisfaction by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Greg Smith, who said after the trial that he hopes for “a process that, instead of being secretive and behind closed doors, makes sense.”

Smith and other parents of students at DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts were upset by the way an investigation into the residency status of students at the public performing arts high school rolled out earlier this month. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education sent letters to parents and guardians of students who it believed to be non-DC residents who weren’t paying out-of-district tuition. 

Smith, a Capitol Hill resident whose 11th grader is in the Literary Media and Communications program at Ellington, said he is more familiar with arguing white collar crime cases, but after growing increasingly frustrated by what he considered a lack of transparency from OSSE about the investigation, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight Ellington parents and guardians whose residency had been challenged, arguing that a three-paragraph letter dated May 9 that OSSE sent to families “utterly fails” to inform parents of their right to appeal or explain on what basis their students had been determined to lack DC residency. Had the letters not been withdrawn, Wednesday would have been the last day parents could appeal OSSE’s findings before they became final, so Smith’s lawsuit sought a temporary restraining order to void the deadline. “The cardinal sin” in this case, Smith said afterward, “is for someone who is genuinely a District citizen to be declared a non-resident,” leaving them “stateless.”

On Wednesday morning, Judge Joan Zeldon agreed that OSSE’s letter was, in her words, “deficient.” She declined to evaluate a revised letter that an attorney for OSSE said the office plans to send by certified mail by the end of this week. Instead, Rich withdrew all 164 letters on behalf of OSSE, and Judge Zeldon dismissed this case. “You won, 100 percent,” she told Smith. Smith and other members of the Ellington community held a press conference at noon Wednesday. OSSE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

On Wednesday afternoon, OSSE released a statement announcing it will send new letters to families suspected of residency fraud. Unlike the initial notices, these letter will inform parents or guardians of their right to administrative review of their cases. After the ten-day window for appeal, “OSSE’s non-residency finding will become a final agency decision,” meaning families who neither appealed their case nor agreed to repay tuition for the past school year will owe tuition and may be subject to legal action from the Attorney General’s office. The statement additionally clarified that all of the students in question will be permitted to finish out the current school year.

This story has been updated to include a statement from OSSE.

Editorial Fellow