Kelley Williams-Bolar, right, with her lawyer. Williams-Bolar was accused of felony records tampering after prosecutors said she used her father’s address to enroll her daughters in the suburban Copley-Fairlawn district in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Kelley Williams-Bolar, alarmed after her home was broken into, yanked her two daughters out of their urban Akron, Ohio, schools and enrolled them in her father's suburban school district nearby, using his address.
That way, said the single mom and teacher's aide, they could come to a safer home after school.
Her peace of mind proved costly. Officials in the Copley-Fairlawn district challenged the residency of her girls in 2007, when they were 9 and 13 years old. Williams-Bolar was charged and convicted of felony records tampering.
Not only was she jailed last month for nine days, but the conviction threatens her efforts to earn a teacher's license and could jeopardize her job as a teacher's aide. She plans to appeal.
Her case has become a rallying point for advocates of school choice and it has outraged residents in her northeast Ohio community — some because of her dishonesty, others for the severity of her prosecution.
"My kids are not latchkey kids," said Williams-Bolar, who had no choice but to re-enroll her daughters in Akron schools two years ago. "I am a mother, and I want to make sure my kids are safe, and I want to make sure that they're educated."
Her prosecution and incarceration are a high-profile example of how schools are getting tougher on parents who sneak their children into other districts, usually better-funded and higher-performing schools. Districts are fighting back, having students followed by private investigators, fining or pressing criminal charges against their parents — even sending them to jail.
The cases raise questions about school funding disparities and pit parents' pursuit of better academics or safer hallways against schools' interests in protecting their funding and quality.
There's little data that tracks how many parents register students using false addresses or those of relatives in violation of state, city or school regulations, but districts from New Hampshire to Texas to California report that it's a problem. Jailing parents isn't common.
"I must say this is the first case I've ever heard of where somebody has been arrested," said Susan Gates, a senior economist who studies education issues at the RAND Corporation.
Copley-Fairlawn Superintendent Brian Poe said his district "has taken a certain amount of heat," with critics saying it should educate all children. "That's not the law in the state of Ohio, and that's not our board policy."
Recent letters to the Akron Beacon Journal capture high emotions on both sides of the issue. Hundreds of Williams-Bolar supporters recently rallied with the Rev. Al Sharpton, calling for her exoneration.
"To take a viable human being and cast her aside like a dangerous criminal again proves that the American justice system is only just for some people — certainly not poor, black and struggling members of society," wrote Mary L. Tabatcher of Mogadore.
But Donna Blair of Akron was sharply critical.
"Shame on Kelley Williams-Bolar," Blair wrote. "We all want what's best for our kids, but should we commit crimes to get them the best? The message she sent to her kids was that it's OK to lie, cheat and steal."
The newspaper reported this week that one lawmaker is preparing legislation that would allow children to enroll in school districts where their grandparents live.
Around the country, transfers between districts are allowed in most places if both districts agree, with some requiring the home district to pay tuition to the receiving district, said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. Problems occur when parents seeking better academics, elite sports teams or safer environments falsify records or say students live with relatives or in rental homes when they don't.
Cases typically are resolved when a parent moves a student out, changes homes or pays tuition, but a few end up in court. Since 2005, Copley-Fairlawn has resolved conflicts with 47 other families over illegal student attendance.
Education officials say cases tend to surface more when budgets are tight and in areas where there are significant disparities between districts such as in academic success or local income level — particularly in wealthier districts near urban areas. That often means the districts in question also have racial disparities.
Williams-Bolar's attorney, Kerry O'Brien, raised the issue of race at one point in court papers, saying that because her client is black, the case raises the specter of "improper racial segregation and prosecution."
In a Pennsylvania case, Latoni Crowder used a cousin's address to ensure her eighth-grader could continue at Central Dauphin East Middle School in central Pennsylvania. Crowder had lost her job at a nursing home and, unable to afford her apartment rent, moved to a cheaper place in the underachieving Harrisburg district.
"Like any parent, I was just looking out for my daughter," said Crowder, 40, one of three Harrisburg residents prosecuted and convicted in November for false enrollment in the better-performing Central Dauphin schools. "I just didn't want her to fall behind and not get a good education."
A judge gave her a year to pay $1,359 restitution to Central Dauphin for tuition. Her daughter has now adjusted well in Harrisburg, Crowder said.
In California, the San Francisco Unified School District started cracking down on residency fraud about a year ago. The schools allow residents to apply to any campus in the district.
With help from anonymous tips, investigators identified about 300 students whose use of false addresses potentially displaced residents trying to get into San Francisco's most sought-after schools. Offenders had to withdraw and pay $2,500 to $5,000 to reimburse investigative costs. The district chose not to prosecute.
"The board had a strong suspicion over the years that there were families using fake addresses to gain access to our schools," said Arcadio Fokin, director of the district's educational placement center.
About 300 other nonresident families came forward in November after the district offered amnesty to those who had falsified residency information, and those students were allowed to finish the semester at their SFUSD school, officials said.
In Georgia, Houston County superintendent Robin Hines said he decided to get tough in 2009 after hearing of parents lying on address affidavits to get their children into his 26,000-student district. The district, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, has high test scores and does well on federal benchmarks, he said.
Working with the county district attorney's office, the district gave families two weeks to withdraw or face criminal charges.
Hines said 130 families left immediately. About 25 indictments were returned on charges of falsifying documents, charges that were dismissed after families agreed to pay fines — ranging from $300 to $18,000, to make up for local tax dollars used.
"We are a highly attractive district and people want to go here," Hines said. "At the root of it all was people who wanted the best for their children, but to falsify records and have children lying, it was not a good situation."
Williams-Bolar could be forced to pay Copley-Fairlawn $30,000 for tuition. Her felony conviction could threaten her current license to work as an aide with special-needs students — and the teaching license she's pursuing in college.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has asked the state parole board to determine whether her felony conviction was an appropriate punishment.
"I'm hoping for a pardon," she said.