Education

DC Not Interested In Stopping Maryland Fraudsters Stealing Its Schools

District of Columbia public school officials have allowed Maryland residents to face no punishment for faking their addresses to take slots in D.C. facilities, and officials have largely crippled the anti-residency fraud measures launched five years ago in response to an uproar from the city council and local parents.

In December 2011, then-Council of District of Columbia Chairman Kwame Brown said he had heard a “resounding cry from the public” that the rampant multi-million dollar fraud problem had been ignored.

“The reality is that there is no incentive for schools to pursue potential fraudulent activity, because it could be a reduction in their enrollment” and therefore reduction in funding, Brown said at an Oct. 6, 2011, city council hearing on the subject. 

“This has been going on for a long time, and we know it,” he added.

That year, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) investigated 193 cases and proved fraud in 83 of them, the school system told the council. The numbers were similar to the prior year. The violators owed retroactive tuition and a fine of $500, but the D.C. council found no evidence that a fine had even once been levied, and said retroactive tuition was repaid only in “a few cases.”

Brown said he expected the schools to kick cheaters out, and raised the fine to $2,000 to provide a deterrent. But in the years since, hardly any cases raised through tips and the district’s investigators have led to sanctions, and the number of leads reported is curiously low considering the resources invested.

The school system assigned one staff member to police residency fraud, but caught only one violator in 2015 — even though as many as 40 percent of the nearly 1,000 observed license plates at District school drop-offs have Maryland plates. (31 others separately withdrew without penalty because an annual audit by an accounting firm showed they didn’t have documentation.) Local officials declined The Daily Caller News Foundation’s offer to view video showing parents driving their children from Maryland homes to DC schools.

The law also ordered D.C. to allow District parents frustrated by a 19,000-name charter school waiting list to report Maryland fraudsters to a tip line. But the online reporting form cannot be submitted without providing a slew of information that seemingly no one except school administrators or the fraudsters themselves could know.

The form requires the tipster to know the first and last names of the child and parents, as well as the grade, and even bureaucratic internal classifications such as “LEA Name.”

It also asks for “Address Used to Verify Residency” — meaning what the alleged fraudster claimed on official registration paperwork — which officials could easily pull from their own records, but which others outside the system would not have easy access.

D.C. pays employees to man a telephone hotline for residency fraud tips, but a hotline operator told TheDCNF that she had never spoken to an investigator. She simply typed the info into the online form, and had no idea if any leads were resolved.

Referring to phone tips, she said “we get them every day” — in addition to any online submissions — yet in a June 2015 report, the OSSE reported only 88 leads in the 2014-15 school year. That number included any tips from “OSSE residency fraud staff” and “partner agencies,” indicating that the school bureaucracy produced few leads on its own and simply looked into cases when parents had taken it upon themselves to do the legwork.

The number of reported tips had more than doubled from 2014, yet the response became even more anemic. Of the 88 tips, it imposed sanctions on only one family, and only then because the parent didn’t bother to take advantage of an appeals process. The parent, who had two children in a school, was fined $15,000 — less than the cost of one year for one child — but only $3,000 has been collected.

The prior year, the government proved five cases out of 38 tips — 13 percent, compared to the most recent year’s 1 percent — and tried to impose retroactive tuition, but never collected most of the money.

The traditional public school system (DCPS) is supposed to conduct its own fraud investigations, while in the city’s highly sought-after charter school system, the OSSE is supposed to police residency fraud.

In 2012, soon after the council hearings, OSSE contracted with Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group, a major and highly-regarded firm. But shortly after the company said in a trade magazine that it was using intensive surveillance against Prince George’s County residents, the government stopped working with them. It replaced them with smaller investigative firms.

With all the firms devoting significant manpower and presumably sending the school system information on large numbers of students, it’s unclear what happens to all those cases, since so few result in official sanctions.

OSSE tasked one full-time government employee with investigating fraud. But because of a failure to generate leads proactively or the bureaucracy’s losing of the cases somewhere along the line, the theft-prevention program winds up being an expense, instead of recovering millions of dollars.

And OSSE has steadily raised the threshold of proof required, moving from one picture of a child emerging from a Maryland house to requiring multiple consecutive days of tailing the child and parent from door to door — a seemingly impossible task since the cheaters often realize they are being followed the first day and take evasive measures the next.

Instances of Maryland kids in D.C. schools have generally drawn the attention of the bureaucracy only for reasons that have nothing to do with moral, legal or financial considerations.

When Woodrow Wilson High School football player Nico Jaleel Robinson was arrested in 2012 for repeatedly robbing people at gunpoint, police arrested him at his home, which they identified as being in Greenbelt, Md. The school signaled it would fight the impact such a determination would have on the sports season, before conceding that both of his parents had Maryland drivers licenses.

Another example occurred when an elementary schooler brought cocaine to school and the courts immediately determined that both his parents lived in Maryland, making it unclear where the case should be prosecuted. Even then, instead of sending him to school in the state where he lives, the principal only suspended the unnamed student for a year.

In 2014, the Excel Academy Public Charter School administrator in charge of enrollment, Lela Johnson, admitted enrolling her daughter at the school for three years despite living in Maryland. After the admission, Johnson received a new job at the school — Executive Principal.

An outside auditor found that only 196 of the school’s 618 students had proper residency documentation. Some students provided documents showing that their parents lived and paid taxes in Maryland, and the school accepted them anyway, the Washington Post reported.

Two years later, TheDCNF observed that Maryland license plates are still rampant at pickup time at Excel.

Marc M. Caposino, OSSE’s former spokesman, was hired there after he left DC’s transit agency in disgrace for providing a fraudulent salary history to get a $170,000-a-year job. He had said he made $150,000 a year at his previous job, when in fact he made $36,000 and had just declared bankruptcy. He also ran an advertising company that charged the government $50,000 for a single banner.

The office of Patience Peabody, who replaced him, did not answer a single question, after a month of attempts, about how it takes fraud seriously.

DCPS spokeswoman Michelle Lerner also declined to answer any questions about the process, saying only that it “follows all protocols.”

New parents are often warned by old-timers not to bother trying to stop residency fraud because DCPS and OSSE won’t do anything about it.

“Be patient. The DCPS administrators have to work through the list of D.C. government employees who reside in Maryland first,” when it comes to moving up the waiting list, one posted on a listserv for city moms.

“You can have all the documentation you want, sadly, nothing will happen. I have taken photos of one family’s MD license plates at a Deal feeder and at Deal. I have given the names of the students and the address used in the school’s directory. It is well known to kids’ friends that they live in MD but grandparents live in DC. Classic,” another wrote.

One claiming to be a school administrator wrote, “Believe me, not only will the staff not want to act on your information, but we will never forget who ‘helpfully tried to bring it to our attention.’ And if we can make things administratively difficult for your family? We will.”

Those who try to report possible fraud often seemed more fearful than those possibly perpetuating fraud.

A parent who wouldn’t share her name saw TheDCNF observing Maryland plates outside of Stokes Elementary and furtively said, “Thank you for doing this. But these people have been reported to OSSE already and nothing ever happens.”

D.C.’s apathy is notable because other school systems with far less severe problems enact stronger measures. Broward County, Florida, for example, hired private investigators in June to use databases and surveillance to stop taxpaying residents of the county from using false addresses to enroll in individual schools that were better-performing than those in their neighborhood, noting that the cheaters were committing felony theft.

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