Parents Cross Lines To Get Kids Into Good Schools

Some families in poor school districts will go to great lengths to give their children a good education. M.L. Schultze, news director of WKSU in Akron, Ohio, describes the case of a local mother who falsified her residency to enroll her kids in a better district — and was jailed for doing so.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Many families can't afford to live in high-performing school districts, and sometimes, parents like Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, bend the residence requirements to get their kids a better education. Sometimes, the school district in question calls that grand theft. Yesterday, the mom was convicted on two felony charges in what appears to be an unprecedented case. She faces jail time. She could lose her job and her place in college.

So, school administrators, parents, an appropriate deterrent or over the top? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from the studios of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, is M.L. Schultze, news director there. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. M.L. SCHULTZE (News Director, WKSU): Good morning - or afternoon, I guess.

CONAN: Good afternoon, yes.

And what were the actual charges against Kelly Williams-Bolar?

Ms. SCHULTZE: Well, actually, she faced a couple of different charges. Grand theft was one, but the one that was much bigger as far as the penalty - the potential penalty - was a third-degree felony tampering with records.

The claim was that she had falsified affidavits that said where her children lived in order to get them into a school district that is one of Ohio's best. It's ranked as excellent with distinction. That's even better than excellent by Ohio standards. And she had falsified these documents. That's what the jury ended up convicting her of. And that's, as I said, a third-degree felony punishable by as much as five years in prison.

CONAN: And sentenced, though, to 10 days in prison and two years' probation, but the felony conviction could have some serious implications?

Ms. SCHULTZE: Yeah. There - this story is just fraught with so many ironies. One of them is that she is going to school to get her degree to be a teacher, and she's working in Akron city schools as a teacher's aide. Both of those licenses could be jeopardized by her having a felony conviction. And the judge felt strongly enough about it in this case that the judge has written a letter to the State Department of Education saying this woman has no record, please don't make this a reason to pull her license.

CONAN: She has, as you say, a great deal at risk. Now, her father did live in the better school district. And had she moved her kids into her father's house, everything would've been okay.

Ms. SCHULTZE: And actually, this trial - the trial itself hung on that definition of where she was living. It was a very fact-based verdict that the jury came back and said, no, she didn't live there. She claimed that, as far as home went, she really kind of had two homes, and her kids very much did live with her father. The jury rejected that flat out in convicting her.

CONAN: And the school district had hired, in fact, a private investigator to find out where she lived.

Ms. SCHULTZE: Yeah. Actually, the school district has gone further than a lot of school districts in trying to track down families that have children attending school in their district but don't live there. They've hired private investigators. They've even offered $100 rewards to people for turning people in they think do not live in the district.

CONAN: And their argument was that they had film - video of her driving her kids from her home in Akron, outside the school district to the school and, well, that basically this is the case of fraud. She owed them $30,000 for her two daughters' education.

Ms. SCHULTZE: Yeah. Ohio's - and this has been a subject of Supreme Court arguments in Ohio going back 20 years now. Ohio has property taxes basically as the main support for schools. And so the school districts say if somebody doesn't live in the school district, they're not paying the property taxes, so they are stealing from the school district by enrolling their children there. And that's where they came up with the $30,000 figure. They said you need to pay the equivalent tuition for that property tax money that we're not getting.

CONAN: And the $30,000 is how it amounts to grand theft. That was one of the charges against both her and her father. The jury did not come up with a verdict on either of those counts, though?

Ms. SCHULTZE: Correct. The jury, you know, this is a case that, in a lot of ways, I think conflicted a lot of people. The jury, I think, felt very comfortable that it had reached the right conclusion with the facts. But as evidenced by the judge's statements and some of the others afterward, I think a lot of them felt like they were nailing somebody who was trying to do the best thing.

CONAN: And she says, the mom, that she's been picked out to be made an example of.

SCHULTZE: Yeah. There are about 30 to 40 families that the Copley-Fairlawn School District approached and said we don't think your kids should be in school here. They don't live here. We have evidence they don't.

What was different is that many of those families pulled their kids out. And that has happened in other suburban districts in Ohio, where parents have been approached and they said your kids don't belong here, you've got till the end of the week to move them. And the parents have done it. In this case, she fought it.

CONAN: She fought it. And some of the allegations where she then, well, doctored some documents to suggest that she had been, in fact - they had, in fact, been living at their father's house.

SCHULTZE: True. And a lot of that - the paperwork is going to be part of the appeal, that her lawyer is filing an appeal. The idea is that she says, if she falsified anything, it was not knowingly done. And knowingly is important in this case.

CONAN: You described this as one of Ohio's best school districts, excellent with distinction. What's the district like where they would have gone to school otherwise?

SCHULTZE: Yeah. In some ways I feel kind of sorry for Akron schools, because in a lot of the national coverage that I've read on this, it's as if she wanted to send her kids from a rotten school district to a great school district. Akron schools is a middle-sized urban school system that has a lot of the issues that come with being an urban school system. I don't want to present it as one of the best.

But on Ohio's ranking of schools, it is listed as continuous improvement. It's not in academic watch. It's not in academic emergency. It's got some excellent with distinction schools within that school system, or at least excellent schools. It's just that Copley-Fairlawn is one of those absolute - nails it as far as the way we measure schools in Ohio, which is graduation rates and attendance rates and basically results of standardized tests.

CONAN: We also know that the State of Ohio is facing some severe budget cuts, presumably to education as well. Do you think this is a story that will have implications down the road?

SCHULTZE: Yeah. As I said, you know, Ohio has been going through 20 years now of contesting how it funds schools. It still relies a lot on property taxes. And in school districts that are wealthy and have high property values, a lot of extras are - they can do it. Urban districts, though they spend pretty heavily on urban districts in Ohio, but given the problems that those urban kids face, a lot of special education and things like that, they're not able to raise the local money to do some of the other extras that they'd like to do.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from school administrators and from parents. Is this an appropriate deterrent or is this over the top? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We'll start with Christine(ph), Christine with us from Long Island in New York.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi. How are you? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTINE: I just wanted to say I do think that this is a very good deterrent, actually. I work as a guidance counselor in a school - public school district. And all too often I see parents falsify records to get their kids into better schools.

And believe it or not, it's the children that are turning the other children in. And once the children go home and tell their parents, you know, I can't get into this particular class because it's full, or I didn't make this sport team or the drama team drama club because too many people tried out, and then we find out that three or four of them don't even live in the district. And then when we go and investigate that, sure enough, it's true. And we give them, you know, an appropriate amount of time to prove that they live here, or in fact they must leave. And if not, they'll be charged tuition.

And no judge that I know of at Long Island has ever made a case out of this. I don't know about other states. It's very interesting to learn about Akron. And I'm actually happy to hear this, that this being done somewhere in the country. My own opinion in what and it is my opinion - is that if you send a student to a district that you do not reside in, not only are you breaking the law by falsifying records but you're doing a disservice to the thousands of other students who live in that district.

Those parents who live in the district and pay real estate taxes in that district may not be getting what they're paying for because their students, their children, are losing opportunities by not being in classes, because they're fill up, or by not being on clubs and sports because they fill up.

CONAN: Christine, though, can you understand A) the impulse of the parent, and B) the concern that - two felony convictions, really?

CHRISTINE: Well, I'm not a judge, so I don't have any say in that. And I'm certainly not an attorney. Just speaking as a guidance counselor, I can say that (unintelligible) and I'm a parent as well. And I understand that, you know, the mom wants to get her kids into the best district as possible. You know, maybe there's an apartment to be rented in that other area. Maybe there's another way. Maybe there's private school. I don't know. But to falsify a record - and in fact, from what I understand, she was going to become a teacher? That to me - she should know better. And maybe not a felony conviction, but maybe something. Something needs to be done to deter everyone else. Maybe they'll stop and say, ooh, I shouldn't really do this, I could get caught. Maybe a fine. Maybe a fine she should pay to the district. And maybe that will settle it. I don't know. But I do know that it's just nice to hear that it's finally being addressed somewhere in the country.

CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the call.

CHRISTINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tom in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. If she had lied to win a free trip to Hawaii or free breast implants or free phone minutes for herself, I'd say tar and feathered the woman. But since she lied for the betterment of her child, especially for education, I applaud her chutzpah.

Let's go next to Meredith. And Meredith with us on the line from Cincinnati.

MEREDITH (Caller): Yeah. My mom did this 30 years ago to get me into a better school district. She used my grandparents' address to get me into a better school district instead of having me attend the Cincinnati public schools. And I am now a single mom myself. And if I could do this for my daughter, I would.

CONAN: And the fact that it would be breaking the law, not a problem?

MEREDITH: Well, the way I see it, the state of Ohio's Supreme Court has ruled the way that schools are funded in the state is unconstitutional and the state refuses to change its ways. So I see it more as act of civil disobedience.

CONAN: Meredith, thanks very much for the call.

MEREDITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Marianne. And she says: Too bad she didn't have a kid athlete. Coach could have fixed it for her. And M.L. Schultze, that's an allegation that's been made, well, not just in Ohio but in a whole bunch of places, that part of the job of athletic coaches in high schools is to find good young athletes and convince their parents to move.

SCHULTZE: Yeah. And you have to understand the Ohio football fever, high school football fever, to really put that in context. That is the allegation a lot of people come back with - if instead of two girls she'd had two linebackers weighing in at 250 or 280, that there would not have been the issue.

I don't know that that's true. I mean, certainly the school district says it's not true. But there have been allegations for years that top athletes get different treatment than some of the others.

CONAN: We're talking about a mother in Akron, Ohio who was convicted on two felony counts for falsifying records to get her children into a better school district. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Terry. And Terry is with us from Florence in South Carolina.

TERRY (Caller): Yes. How are you doing? I am a parent. And I think that to me, that's way over the top. You know, if I had to do it, I would do the same thing. To me it all boils down to economics. You have the haves the haves-nots, and most of the have-nots are(ph) African-American or Latinos, and most of the haves are most of them are European. That's what it really boils down to. And for someone to want better for their children, and you're going to punish them for it - I think that's crazy. As if the taxpayers of Ohio won't have enough criminals that they can go out and spend money investigating. She's not selling drugs. She's not prostituting her children. She just wants what's best for her kids. And I think that, to me, that's that's - I mean, I've heard it all. That's just crazy.

CONAN: And how is this just playing devil's advocate here...

TERRY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: How is this this is a theft. This is theft of services. It's is it not a crime?

TERRY: Well, also the Supreme Court said that the way they collect taxes are not fair. I mean, does that mean all the the people in public office going to go to jail? Because if the Supreme Court says it's not right and you're still doing it that way, then there's something wrong with the way Ohio's being run. I mean, to me I don't think it's a crime. (Unintelligible) you want what's best. I mean, she didn't hurt anybody. I mean, if you want her to leave her kids, just tell her you can't bring her back here anymore, and put her in the right district. But for you to spend jail time, you've got taxpayers' money doing that, and the school has the money to hire an investigator - to me that's a rich district. And it really boils down, like I said, you've got the poor of the poorest and you have the rich and the rich, and that's what it basically boils down to.

CONAN: M.L. Schultze thanks for your call very much for the call, Terry. And M.L. Schultze, I was wondering, does this parallel to the kind of discussion you've been hearing in Ohio over the past couple of weeks?

SCHULTZE: Very much. It's actually led to a discussion of whether Ohio and a lot of other states should be starting to think about education funding as funding that goes to the kid, not to the school district, and if there's some way of pooling that money so if kids want to go to any public school district in the state, they can go.

Right now, Ohio does have open enrolment, but it's optional on the part of a district. If a district wants to open its borders and let kids from other districts come in, they can. But they don't have to. And some folks are saying, you know, if these suburban districts are doing such a dynamite job, why not let urban kids go to those suburban districts?

CONAN: This email from Kristen: I think this is a little overkill, personally, but I'm a little biased since in Minnesota a student can go to any school in the state, regardless of residence. As long as the parents can get the child to the school they choose, they're allowed to go through open enrolment. And is that something you're saying there is open enrolment except if the district doesn't want it.

SCHULTZE: Right. And many of the best suburban districts, frankly, have said no thanks, they don't want it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to this is Lily, and Lily with us from Medina in Ohio.

LILY (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LILY: I don't think this is overboard. I work in a school. And I've had problems with students moving in and they aren't really living there. And especially with the way the funding is we have a lot of problems with funding in Ohio right now for schools, and schools are having to make a lot of cuts. Because the voters can vote against a tax increase, and so if a school district's voters have voted for it, then it should go for the people who live there.

And there's also, I don't know if that (unintelligible) has open enrolment. But there's also a thing and I'm not a legal person, but there is a thing called the grandparents law, and it's not difficult for grandparents to get whatever so the student can have their home address as their home. I have had students whose parents lived in well, the ones I've worked with were from Cleveland, and they wanted to move out for whatever reason. And the grandparent filled out all the forms and they used the grandparents' address. It was all legal. And the students were enrolled in our school, even though, you know, their mom or dad still lived in Cleveland. So I just....

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Lily, we're just running out of time. I wanted to ask...

LILY: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: ...M.L. Schultze at WKSU if that was an option - could that have been an option in this case?

SCHULTZE: It would have required legal custody on the part of Kelly Bolar William's father or Williams Bolar's father, for him to actually get legal custody. And it's very important to her, from everything we've heard, that she be recognized, she's their parent, she's her daughter's parent and she wasn't going to give up that role.

CONAN: All right, Lily, thanks again very much for the call. And M.L. Schultze, before we let you go, there's going to be an appeal. Where does this go next?

SCHULTZE: Well, we understand that she is supposed to get out of jail today. There will be an appeal. And meanwhile, public opinion is raging on all sides.

CONAN: M.L. Schultze, thanks very much for your time today.

SCHULTZE: Surely.

CONAN: M.L. Schultze is news director at member station WKSU, with us today from their studios in Kent, Ohio.

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