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For years, D.C. Public Schools employees have complained that there isn’t enough money to fund the basics of education in the District. But information obtained by Washington City Paper suggests that a few of the District’s teachers and school employees may be contributing to the system’s chronic money troubles.
At least seven nonresident employees whose children attend city schools have failed to pay the tuition required by law. The employees, including two teachers and one principal, owe as much as $100,000 in tuition dating back to 1991. The employees represent an ironic component of the much larger problem of collecting nonresident tuition—more than $1 million in fees have gone uncollected for the first two quarters of this school year, according to system documents.
Beverly Lofton, a spokeswoman for the school system, says nonresident tuition payments are due at the start of the year—$6,000 each for high-school students and $5,500 each for junior-high and elementary-school students.
“If a parent says they can’t pay that, then we put them on a plan,” Lofton says, adding that the repayment plan usually involves monthly installments. “If a parent misses two months, letters are sent home. After that, we get the Corporation Counsel involved,” she adds.
Burnell Holland Jr., principal of the Park View Elementary School, owes nearly $6,000 for his sixth-grade child; his case has yet to be referred to the Corporation Counsel. Brent Jordan, a teacher at Lafayette Elementary School whose daughter attends the same school, owes nearly $14,000. His case was not referred to the Corporation Counsel.
Four more unidentified employees owe a total of $23,000 in back tuition. One employee whose child attended Hine Junior High School in Southeast owes a total of $19,000. The child has since transferred to Maryland, but the bill still has not been paid.
The most egregious violator may be Wanda Parson, a teacher at Paul Junior High School in Northwest, who has four children in D.C. Public Schools. According to school system documents kept by the Nonresident Tuition Enforcement Branch, Parson owes the system nearly $70,000. Last month she requested and received a hearing involving each of the four cases. Enforcement has been less than speedy in Parson’s case. She received her first bill in April 1988. The second arrived in March 1995.
Reached at Paul Junior High earlier this week, Parson would only say that the school system information is incorrect. She refused to comment further, referring all other questions to attorney Regina Jackson.
Jackson maintains that Parson is a District resident. She says the issue of Parson’s residency first came up in 1987 and should have been resolved at the time. Jackson filed a brief on Tuesday, May 9, with the hearing examiner on Parson’s behalf, and is currently awaiting a decision in the case.
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Other school system employees don’t dispute that they owe the tuition money to the District, but they say they have negotiated in good faith.
“I owe the money and I’m going to pay it,” Principal Holland said earlier this week when reached at his office in Park View Elementary. He explained that he delayed payment because he was lobbying for a waiver.
“Because of my employee status, I thought it was reasonable to request a waiver. But nobody knew how to pursue it. I spoke with members of the administration and in every instance I was given support,” Holland said. “I was waiting for a response to my request but I guess the timing is bad. People say to me privately they are sympathetic and supportive, but it’s bad politics to come out publicly right now for something like this.”
The reports of substantial uncollected nonresident tuition coincide with a massive cash shortage in the school system. In fiscal 1995, the school system was ordered to cut its $500-million budget by $23 million, forcing reductions in staff and teachers. More recently, the school system scrambled to find money to correct fire-code violations. District parents have complained that their children are without textbooks, and some teachers have had to buy supplies for classroom instruction with their own funds.
In her April 11 budget report to the full legislature, D.C. Council Committee on Education Chair Hilda Mason wrote, “As is the case with the school system’s poor management of facilities it leases and temporarily rents to outside users, the D.C. Public Schools are also forgoing substantial nonappropriated revenues due to a lax enforcement of nonresident tuition collection.”
Despite the poor reputations of some city schools, many parents working in the District enroll their children in the system because it’s convenient, often seeking out the schools that have exceptional programs.
Nonresident parents with children enrolled in District schools can receive waivers for a variety of reasons. In the 1993-94 school year, there were 321 nonresident students, but 148 were exempted from paying tuition. Only 20 of the remaining 173 actually paid their full tuition; 17 made partial payments and 105 made no payments at all, according to school system documents. A total of $500,000 in nonresident tuition went uncollected during that school year.
Lofton says that “more aggressive action is being taken because it is a lot of money,” pointing out that 80 students have been “excluded” for nonpayment of tuition. She says at least six children of school workers have been forced to withdraw for nonpayment this school year.
“There is no special treatment for the children of school employees,” she says.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of the citywide Parents United, says her group met with representatives from the Department of Public Works, which will have the ability and authority to trace tag numbers. Officials hope to get a handle on the seriousness of the nonresident problem. Parents United has suggested that the school system use tax forms to certify residency. The school system currently relies on utility payment receipts, which can be shared to beat the system.
Principals say they like nonresident parents because these parents tend to be more involved in their child’s education—making them better advocates when it comes to lobbying for money, programs, and supplies for their schools.
“I don’t care if [children and parents] live outside of the District,” says Rice-Thurston. “But I would like some of their money.”