Mother Jailed For School Fraud, Flares Controversy

Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted of lying about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district. Williams-Bolar decided four years ago to send her daughters to a highly ranked school in neighboring Copley-Fairlawn School District. But it wasn't her Akron district of residence, so her children were ineligible to attend school there, even though her father lived within the district's boundaries. Host Michel Martin talks with Brian Poe, superintendent of Copley-Fairlawn School District, about the matter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In our Friday features, we'll be talking about two different stories that touch on questions of church and state. We'll talk about the death of a gay rights activist in Uganda. Now, many people are asking if the advocacy of some American evangelicals played a role in fostering a climate of intolerance. And we'll talk about the Alabama governor's controversial comments about his faith. Plus, the Barbershop guys are with us. They'll take on everything from the State of the Union to the relationship woes of comedian-turned-relationship-guru Steve Harvey.

But first, the debate over an Ohio mother and what she did to see that her daughters received a better education. Kelly Williams-Bolar, a single mother in Akron, was convicted of a felony last week. The official charge was tampering with records that allowed her to enroll her children in the adjacent and higher-performing school district next door, called Copley-Fairlawn. She said this was justified because she and the children divided their time between a home in Akron, and her father's home within the Copley-Fairlawn district.

Williams-Bolar was sentenced to 10 days in jail plus two years of probation. She was released after serving nine of those days. She was studying to be a teacher but because she has been convicted of a felony, it is possible that she will be unable to get her teacher's license.

Now, as the story has made its way into the national consciousness, reactions have varied, as you might imagine. There's a strong social media campaign calling the prosecution - let alone the conviction and punishment - an outrageous overreaction, and another example of selective prosecution with possible racial overtones. And there are also those who believe, as the judge in this case said, that a strong deterrent to the practice of kids enrolling out of their neighborhoods is justified in these tough economic times.

With us now is Brian Poe, the superintendent of the Copley-Fairlawn school district. Mr. Poe, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BRIAN POE (Superintendent, Copley-Fairlawn School District): Thank you for having me with you today.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that your schools are not just noted for their academic excellence. In fact, they're called excellent with distinction, according to the Ohio Department of Education. But the district's also been noted for its aggressive residency enforcement, which reportedly includes private investigators checking on parents' living arrangements, and that families can earn $100 if they turn people in who don't live in the district. Is that all true, and how did that start?

Mr. POE: Yes. And we've had approximately 48 residency cases since 2005 - over the past five years; so approximately nine per year. In Ohio, you need to go to the school district where you reside. In our district, we do not have open enrollment. Many school districts do not. And since we do not have open enrollment, you actually need to reside within our district boundaries to attend school here.

MARTIN: And you said that your district, in particular, has had 48 of these cases over the last five years. Have any other of them gone to prosecution?

Mr. POE: No. Not in my time. I've been with the district since 2007. We've been able to resolve 47 of those 48 cases.

MARTIN: And how were they resolved?

Mr. POE: Some families have offered compelling evidence that they do live within the district. Other families have withdrawn from school. Some families have moved into the district legally. And other families have chosen to apply and to pay tuition.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, what is the tuition?

Mr. POE: The tuition - and this is set by the State of Ohio - is $6,895 per year.

MARTIN: Per child.

Mr. POE: Per child, yes. What people don't understand is that - they think we set that figure. That's set by the state.

MARTIN: Why do you think this case went as far as it did - is the question I think a lot of people are asking.

Mr. POE: Sure. And it's a good question. We worked on this case from 2006 to 2008, had numerous contacts and sent information to the family, had a residency hearing with the family. And really, where this came to light was when the parent filed a resident - a grandparent affidavit in juvenile court. Juvenile court ruled that that affidavit was void, and said specifically that the children resided outside of our district, in Akron.

So acting on that court ruling, we took a look at that. And the parent, at that point, still contended that the residence was in Copley, with her father. And so after looking at some conflicting documents, we had some concerns over that and decided to turn that information over to the prosecutor's office. And this was not something that went on over a one-week time or a two-week time. This was over the course of time. And we worked hard to try and work through this, as we have with the other 47 cases that were resolved.

MARTIN: What is the key fact that makes you believe that these children really do not reside with the grandfather? Because, you know, wealthy people often have more than one residence - you know, some people have a summer home. So what is the triggering fact here that causes you to believe that that is not true?

Mr. POE: Well, the triggering fact was from the juvenile court that ruled that the home was in Akron, with the mother. Had she moved in with her father in Copley-Fairlawn with the children, the children could have attended our school district.

MARTIN: But there are people who have dual - they have more than one parent and sometimes, children go back and forth between one parent or another. So is that really sufficient?

Mr. POE: Well, in this case, it needs to be the parent. So it's where the parent is residing, the person who has legal guardianship.

MARTIN: OK. Can I ask you, though, to go back to the question I asked you initially - is, what occasion this very aggressive stance - not just in this case, but your district's very aggressive stance overall? What is the scope of the situation, from your perspective, on why the district takes the aggressive stance that it does?

Mr. POE: Well, we felt we did have a number of students who were attending our district that did not reside in our district. It was feedback we were getting from our communities. And so that's a cost to our district over the course of time. We realize it's a difficult situation because you're dealing with children and with families. But it's something that we feel that's important due to the local tax base here. The majority of our dollars for our school district come locally.

And if we have two more students or five more students that come to us, we don't receive any additional state funds for that. Our state funds are set per year. And so, if two, five, 10 more students come to us, we don't get an increase in those funds. And I fully realize that that's a difficult situation because you do have children and families involved. And so it's difficult to hold those residency hearings.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Brian Poe. He's the superintendent of the Copley-Fairlawn school district. That school district recently prosecuted single mother Kelly Williams-Bolar, accusing her of falsifying documents to enroll her children in the school district. She served nine days in jail.

Mr. Poe, can I ask, you realize that this story has become a big, national issue - I know that you've been on a lot of national programs; I've seen you on CNN; and there have been many people, like us, asking for interviews. Do you have a sense of why you think this story is of such interest?

Mr. POE: It tugs at the heart because you have a situation where you have an individual involved; the children are brought into the picture. And it's a very difficult situation. And so I think people feel for that situation. And I think with any difficult situation such as this, you're going to have people land on a number of different sides of the issue.

MARTIN: I realize that message boards for media sites are not a scientific survey of opinion, by any means. But I was looking at some of the comments posted to one of the local stations in Ohio that reported on this story. And they are very strong. And I'll just read you a couple. And they're not all from the perspective of one particular group or another, but here's a representative example.

(Reading) This story highlights the moral depravity of the current district-based system we have in America, where we practice apartheid through making education a function of a ZIP code. Here we have a woman clearly motivated to educate her child, but finds herself thwarted by an expensive, ineffective system that keeps her child out of good schools based on lines on a map.

And then there are others who call this justice, is what they call it. In this case, it was just for her. Get it? This is really wrong. It's sad to think these people don't really care about kids at all. And then another comment: It's sad that people don't give a damn about your kids. All they care about is their own kids.

Are you getting that, too? Are you getting that, where you...

Mr. POE: Yeah. We're getting all sides. And I think you bring up a great point. I think what this looks at is the greater picture of how education is funded -not only in the State of Ohio, but in our country. And that's beyond my responsibility. I can certainly weigh in on that. However, I think it's something that can be looked at.

But currently, I'm required to operate under state law as well as our board of education policy. And so I think that bigger picture needs to be discussed, and needs to be looked into.

MARTIN: The racial aspect of it is, I know, a sensitive one. It's something that's often difficult for people to discuss. But for some people, it is there. And I would like you to address that, if you would.

Mr. POE: Absolutely. We've received a number of contacts of people that are very upset and feel that this is a racial issue. Of the 47 issues, the cases that we were able to resolve, those were families from all different backgrounds - African-American, white, Asian families. And so when you look at that aspect, this is the only case out of the 48 that escalated to this level.

So I don't believe this is racially motivated. And I don't believe - I have a lot of respect for the prosecutor's office, a tough case to prosecute. But I don't believe this is a racially motivated case.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you, though, what percentage of the cases, of the 48 cases overall were of different - involved people of different demographic background?

Mr. POE: Oh, not at all. You have approximately 29 African-American families, 15 white families, three Asian families. MARTIN: So the vast majority were African-American but - it was twice as many as white families - but I see what your point - there's a significant number of white families as well.

Mr. POE: Correct.

MARTIN: OK. Do you feel that the punishment was fair? I mean, a lot of people are noting the fact that she won't be able to practice a profession that she's trying to pursue. And a lot of people say, what's the point of that?

Mr. POE: Right. You know, I think it's a very, very difficult situation. You know, I - obviously - was not involved in the punishment. I think that's a situation that through our judicial system and through the prosecutor's office -and it's a tough decision on the part of the judge, I'm sure. I have, you know, I have not spoken with the judge. But I respect the decision, and respect the process. And so, you know, I understand the difficulty here with the situation, and with the children.

MARTIN: What lesson would you want to be drawn from this, given that you are an educator? What do you think we should all learn from this?

Mr. POE: I think the important piece to this is that if we disagree with the laws, and we disagree with how things are set up, I think it's important that we still need to follow those laws and abide by them, and work through situations and work with - in this case - our school district, which we've been able to do with the other families.

MARTIN: You know, I wonder if the analogy here is somewhat like immigration, where people say - you know - this is a nation of laws, and you need to follow the laws. And then some people say, well, it's a human rights and human dignity issue. If you were running for your life, would you really care about a stop sign?

Mr. POE: Right. And I mean, you bring up a good point. And I'm not sure I can argue that. I can tell you, though, my responsibilities within the district. We have 3,100 students and if we were to take on 400 or 500 more students, we would not be able to educate them - which would require us to build more buildings. And I know there are people out there that are going to say, OK, go ahead and do that.

However, you know, we rely on the local tax dollars more than most other districts. And unfortunately, we're not able to afford that. And so we work within the laws that's - set up.

MARTIN: Brian Poe is the superintendent of the Copley-Fairlawn school district. And he joined us from his office. Mr. Superintendent, we do appreciate your time. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. POE: Thank you very much.

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