Investigation of DCPS uncovers widespread residency fraud


Ayomi Wolff

A series of DCPS investigations have found an alarming rate of residency fraud across the District. In Duke Ellington, pictured left, nearly a third of the student body is attending without paying legally-mandated nonresident tuition.

Marc Peña and Elie Salem

A series of probes, investigations, and audits released in the past few months found widespread residency fraud throughout the District. The first of these reports, by DC Inspector General Daniel Lucas, concluded that DCPS was not consistently verifying student residency. Weeks later, an internal DCPS investigation found more than 30 percent of students at Duke Ellington were illegally attending from outside DC without paying tuition.

Students who attend school from outside the District are legally required to have a tuition agreement with DCPS, in which an annual tuition is paid as a prerequisite for attending local public schools. The policy is intended to reduce crowding in DCPS and ensure that those who aren’t funding the schools with tax dollars make some sort of financial contribution.

Investigations found specific ways in which families faked their residency, which included bogus leases, lease receipts, and paychecks. The investigators also found that guardians used documents of other family members who are residents of DC to bolster their attempts to prove their residency.

Residency is not thoroughly checked by Central Office, partly due to the fact that DCPS has only one investigator, who handles hundreds of cases of falsified residency. Even if students identify as non-resident, the process to file a tuition agreement is often ambiguous. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) was unable to specify exactly how tuition costs for non-residents were paid, nor was it able to provide which staff members handled the payments.

While DC Inspector General Daniel Lucas found 82 non-resident students who did not pay tuition, this number is likely far smaller than the actual value. A report by the OSSE found a total of 155 tips of residency fraud in 2017.

The internal DCPS investigation into Duke Ellington found that out of 570 students, 164 were from outside of DC and had no tuition agreement in place. Residency fraud in one of DC’s most acclaimed schools proved that the problem of residency fraud was far more widespread than originally believed.

In a statement responding to the Duke Ellington investigation, DC Councilmember David Grosso said that a pattern of dishonesty had hindered the distribution of accurate residency fraud data in the past. “Today’s report not only confirms the stunning depth of residency fraud at Duke Ellington, but also that the previous two Chancellors had repeatedly lied to the Committee and the Council about how profound this problem is. I continue to grow frustrated with the lack of transparency from DC Public Schools and the Executive and this is the latest blow to their credibility,” he said.

Past investigations into residency fraud found that many high-profile school officials have faked their residency or averted District policy in order to secure their children a spot in DC schools, often with the knowledge of officials at Central Office. DC’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, the Executive Assistant to former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and the acclaimed Principal of Leckie Elementary School were all found to have committed some form of residency fraud.

DC Attorney General Karl Racine is responsible for suing guardians who are found to have falsified their residency. Out of the 182 families brought to the District Attorney’s attention since 2013, only 39 have been forced to pay tuition to DCPS or faced punishment for residency fraud in the past five years.

In an interview with The Washington Post, DC Attorney General Karl Racine stated, “[the District Attorney’s Office] perform an independent review of the evidence presented and the facts of the case to determine if further action is merited and is likely to produce a positive result, either through a judgment or settlement, that would justify the use of our limited resources.” In some cases, the charge of residency fraud is ambiguous because students are either homeless or do not live consistently with one family member.

A total of $1.5 million was awarded to the District in these lawsuits. As of now, 20 percent of that sum has been paid and the remainder is expected through regular financial installments.

Grosso noted that since OSSE was placed in charge of investigation residency fraud investigations in 2017, the scope of the problem has been realized. “When [OSSE] did their look at this, and this is the first year they’ve done it, you saw the numbers that came out were astonishing. The more we do publicity, the more we do enforcement, the more likely people will pay, or will go to school in their own jurisdiction,” Grosso said in an interview with The Beacon.

All students found guilty of residency fraud at Ellington will be able to finish the year, and then will be barred from returning for two years. After that, they will be allowed to return to the school provided that they pay tuition.