Ohio Mom Defends Sending Kids To Better School District

The case of an Ohio mother who served a ten day jail term has sparked an intense debate about education, and race and fairness. Williams-Bolar was convicted of falsifying records, so that her two daughters could attend classes in a better-performing school district in suburban Akron. Authorities say her actions amount to theft. Host Michel Martin speaks with Williams-Bolar and her lawyer David Singleton about the case and its implications.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

The Grammys are a few days off. We'll preview that celebration of the music industry later in the program.

But first, we have a conversation with a woman whose 10-day jail sentence has sparked an intense debate about education and race and fairness in this country. Kelley Williams-Bolar is the mother of two. She is a teacher's aide and studying to become a teacher. She served nine days of a 10-day jail sentence because school and law enforcement authorities say her children don't really live with their grandfather in the high-achieving Copley-Fairlawn school district where they were registered.

The authorities say they actually live in Akron, next door and that Kelley Williams-Bolar's actions amount to theft of about $6,900 per child per year. Her case has spawned intense feelings about her and about the way she was treated. Now, last week we heard from the superintendent of the Copley-Fairlawn school district who defended the decision to prosecute Kelley Bolar-Williams. We were not able to speak with her then. But she's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KELLEY WILLIAMS-BOLAR (Teachers Aide): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I should also mention that we have her attorney, David Singleton, on the line with us as well. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DAVID SINGLETON (Attorney): Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So Kelley, first, if I may ask, how are you?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: I'm doing fairly well. You know, I have my moments. I have a lot of anxiety. I just have it hard sometimes, you know, thinking about, you know, the whole aspect of it.

MARTIN: I wanted to go back over what happened, to the degree that you can talk about it, and then Mr. Singleton can jump in if he feels it necessary. There are different reports about why you decided to send the girls to that particular school. By one account your home had been burglarized and you were worried about their safety. By another account, you just felt that you wanted them to live with your father.

Can you tell us why you initially enrolled them in the Copley-Fairlawn district?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: What happened was, in 2006 my home had been burglarized. Actually, that morning my daughter wasn't feeling so well, but I'm glad that she went on to school. But whoever this was, he just destroyed my home. It was just it was a hard time for me. I was in school. I was trying to, you know, I had objectives, I had goals to meet. I was trying to finish college so I can be productive with my girls. So that fall, you know, I had enrolled the girls in the Copley-Fairlawn city schools in '06. And, you know, that's how everything had got started.

MARTIN: Well, the school officials and then, of course, the prosecutors say that they actually live with you. What is your understanding of this? Is it your understanding that they lived with their grandfather, your father, during the week and that they live with you on the weekends? What is your argument?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: First of all, my dad's home is - that's my family home. And my dad always told me that his home, you know, is my home. And that's how, you know, that's - I've always, it's my daddy's house. I've always, always been like that.

MARTIN: But to the specific legal question of where your children reside, what is your - what's your answer?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: They reside with me.

MARTIN: Well, to that point though, the argument that the school district is making is that if they live with you and if you live in Akron, that they're not eligible to go to that school. So what's your answer?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: I enrolled them. We got the grandparent power of attorney.

MARTIN: So your argument is he has power of attorney so therefore in essence he's a co-parent.

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: (Unintelligible) power of attorney. Yes.

MARTIN: In essence you're saying he's a co-parent.

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: He has grandparent power of attorney. Grandparent power of attorney, it doesn't say that they're co-parents. It says that they're the grandparent - grandparent power of attorney. That's just what it is.

MARTIN: David, can I bring you in here?

Mr. SINGLETON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And ask you, what is your understanding of this here? Because when we talked to the school officials at Copley-Fairlawn, their argument was that this is very clear, that in essence the children reside with her and therefore they're not eligible to live in that district. So what is the grandparent power of attorney and what is the relevance here?

Mr. SINGLETON: Well, first of all, I think what Kelley was saying, that her daughters reside with her now. They definitely reside with her now, because the two daughters are not staying with grandfather anymore and they're not attending the Copley-Fairlawn school district anymore. When this initially became an issue, my understanding is that the children were staying some of the time with their grandfather and there'd be some nights when they would stay back in Akron.

But when this first got raised as an issue from the school district's standpoint, one of the things that they said that she could do is get a grandparent power of attorney. She did that. She thought the issue was resolved and it turned out it wasn't.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

I'm speaking with Kelley Williams-Bolar. She is the Ohio mother who was convicted of tampering with school records and felony charges in connection with enrolling her daughters in the high-achieving school district called the Copley-Fairlawn school district. We're also speaking with her attorney, David Singleton.

So let me go back to the superintendent, Brian Poe. We talked to him last week. This is what he had to say about your case. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BRIAN POE (Superintendent, Copley-Fairlawn School District): We worked on this case from 2006 to 2008. I 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 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.

MARTIN: So David, the legal question I would have for you is, why was that affidavit void? Do you know? What is your understanding?

Mr. SINGLETON: The reason why it was void was the biological father had not signed off on it. And that's my understanding of why the court voided it. And bear in mind, I was not involved in the case at that standpoint. But reading the court documents, that's what voided it.

MARTIN: So Kelley Williams-Bolar, can I ask you, why - does your former husband object to your daughters staying with your grandfather during the week?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: No, no. My ex-husband, he really didn't have a say. I had full custody of my girls.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you were trying to mislead the Copley-Fairlawn school district? Because when I asked them about whether they felt that the way you were treated was appropriate, you know, the issue that came up was - well, two - they're saying one is that there's a service that you weren't eligible for or that you could've paid for but didn't. So their argument, one, is you could've paid tuition, or two, that in essence they're saying that you misled them about what they think is the truth. So what do you say to that?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Well, first, I want to also mention, with the grandparent power of attorney, it was denied in June, that the girls had less than a week left of school when the judge looked back at it in June of 2008. So just to let you know that.

Mr. SINGLETON: And Michel, I think the reason she pointed that out is because then she pulled her daughters out of Copley-Fairlawn school district, and then there wasn't an indictment until November of 2009.

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Right. Eighteen months later.

MARTIN: OK. So what you're saying is that they were already out of that school district at the time that you were indicted.

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Yes. They were long gone.

MARTIN: So tell me again though - do you feel that you were misleading them? Did you feel that there was an intent to mislead the Copley-Fairlawn district about where your children really resided?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: No, no. There was no intent, no.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you were honest?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Yes.

MARTIN: Did they really live with their grandfather?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: They did. We stayed, we - you know, they would stay here and they would stay at the other address. It's just, you know, they would stay with their dad. They would stay with the other grandparents. I mean my kids have more than one residency.

MARTIN: Why do you think that there's such a disconnect between the way you see your situation and the way the school officials saw your situation? I mean, from your perspective, you're saying the kids have more than one home and they resided with your father during the week and they resided with you on the weekends. And sometimes they were with their dad on the weekends. Well, why do you think that the school district saw it so differently?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: You know what? I really cannot speak why and I don't know what - what their (unintelligible) I don't know.

MARTIN: David, do you have an opinion about this?

Mr. SINGLETON: I do, Michel. I think that while Kelley's motivation to enroll her children in the Copley-Fairlawn school district was motivated by safety concerns, where she was living in Akron, there's no doubt in my mind that why the school district really cared about this issue is that they have - from their standpoint, very scarce resources and that they don't want folks coming in who don't, in their words, belong there, taking away those resources.

And, you know, while that might not have been Kelley's motivation for why she enrolled the kids there, it certainly was the reason why the school district went to the mat to have her prosecuted and convicted of two felony offenses.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we talked to Superintendent Poe last week about this. And, you know, needless to say, as you imagined, heard a lot from people about it and we were monitoring a number of news sites where people have covered your case and wrote about it. And there are two different points of view that we're hearing. One is people saying this would never have happened if you were white, and I'm wondering if you feel that that is true.

And then, second, a completely different point of view saying, you know, race aside, rules are rules and that people who pay taxes to these schools have a right to say that other people who don't live there shouldn't go there. So, I wanted to ask you those two things. Do you think race plays a part in this, first of all? And second of all, what about those who say rules are rules?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: With the race part, I mean, I don't know if it was race or not. I mean, just to say that this wouldn't, you know, be right just to say, oh yeah, you know, Copley-Fairlawn schools is racist because they chose me out of so many other people to do this. No, you know, I can't answer that. I'm sorry, but what was the other...

MARTIN: And the second question is that, you know, some people are outraged about the way you were treated. But other people are upset with you for taking it to the mat, as it were. Their argument is that the residency requirements are clear. And that, you know...

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Well, we had the grandparent power of attorney so, you know, if you look at an application, they do accept the grandparent power of attorney.

MARTIN: So, Kelley, you feel that your children spend enough time at your father's house, at their grandfather's house, that it was legitimate that they were legitimately residing there?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Yes. Heavens yes. My dad helped me raise my girls. In my culture, our grandparents are very involved in their grandchildren's lives. My father has helped me with my girls since I've had them. That's, you know, that's our culture. I don't know.

MARTIN: David, what do you think? Do you think, in part, this is a cultural disconnect that the school system not recognizing the significant role that grandparents play in some kids' lives? What is your take?

Mr. SINGLETON: It might be. Listen, I'm African-American. I grew up in a family where, you know, family members look out for each other and you go stay with different family members at different times. It's just all part of the family. And I don't know that - I can't say for sure that there's a cultural disconnect.

We certainly are not going to say that this is motivated by race. You know, I do think...

MARTIN: Well, just with the numbers, just to clarify with the numbers, we asked Superintendent Poe about the numbers. He said that there were 47 cases over the last five years where residency questions were raised and that there were, 29 of them were African-American, 15 were white and 3 were Asian-American. So I don't know what that means. But, so, David, what's your final thought here?

Mr. SINGLETON: Well, you know, I don't know that I can say that race is motivating this. I did want to say, though, to those listeners who think that it's unfair that Ms. Williams-Bolar's children were attending that district, her dad pays taxes in that district and he owns a home and so, you know, he paid for his grandchildren to go there, particularly given the fact that they were spending, you know, most nights there during the week with them. So, we think ultimately this case never should've been prosecuted criminally.

MARTIN: One question, though, that the superintendent asked us - well, he raised, which is why don't you just move in with your dad?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Because, why not have some kind of independency. You know, I'm grown with girls, you know, they need independency. They like to have fun and maybe get loud sometimes. And, you know, I just didn't want to be, you know, my dad's older and just didn't want to always be with the girls, you know, always on him.

MARTIN: I see. Kelley, do you know what's next for you? I know that you were studying for your teacher's license and we are told that the judge has said that she will write a letter to the state's board of education asking that your license - that you not be barred from getting your teacher's license because of this, but what are you thinking? What's next?

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Well, right now, you know, I'm just trying to take every day as it is. I just appreciate being out of jail. I appreciate every day I'm just, you know, I used to be a person of planning, you know, like, always had my goals and objectives. But right now that's all, like, at a halt. And soul, I'm not really looking at, like, too much future because right now my future is, you know, I don't know about my future. So, I don't know what's next.

But, you know, I'm not perfect. I'm just a mom. And I raise my girls. I love my girls. I've never been away from them until I got sentenced. And I try to protect them. I've always been there for them. You know, nobody can take care of my girls like I can take care of them. So, that's it.

MARTIN: Kelley Williams-Bolar is a teacher's assistant in Akron, Ohio. She hopes to earn her license to become a schoolteacher and she has been in the news because school officials say that she improperly enrolled her children in a neighboring high-performing school district. And she served 9 days in jail because of it. And she was with us by phone from Akron.

David Singleton is an attorney representing Kelley Williams-Bolar. He was with us from Cincinnati. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. SINGLETON: Thank you.

Ms. WILLIAMS-BOLAR: Thank you.

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