On Monday grand theft charges were dismissed against Kelley Williams-Bolar and her father, Edward Williams, in the school residency case that has outraged the nation. But both still face felony counts of tampering with records, and the case continues to be a key part of the national debate over education reform.
The 40-year-old single mother of two works as a teacher’s assistant for special needs kids at a nearby high school and is going to school for her own teacher certification. She lives in an Akron housing project, but sent her daughters to school in the wealthier district of by using her father’s home address in neighboring Copley-Fairlawn.
After officials found out that the girls didn’t actually reside at their grandfather’s residence and therefore didn’t pay property taxes that went to the school, the district ordered the family to pay over $30,000 in back-tuition. Williams-Bolar refused, so officials then decided to bring forth criminal charges and she was convicted last week on of theft and tampering. The sentence: five years in prison, which was reduced to 10 days in jail; two years of probation; and 80 hours of community service. Her father, meanwhile, was also been charged with defrauding the district and is facing a trial later this month. Williams-Bolar was released from jail one day early after being given credit for time served shortly after her initial arrest in 2009.
Last week Summit County prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh stood strongly behind the decision to prosecute the mom.
”While this case is truly an unfortunate situation, the fact remains that Kelley Williams-Bolar was prosecuted because she repeatedly and willfully broke the law, as a jury of her peers unanimously affirmed in court," Walsh said in a statement.
The case sparked national outrage. Advocacy groups Change.org and Color of Change launched ambitious online campaigns that have already gotten thousands of signatures. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the case "morally unacceptable." The Atlanta Journal Constitution and NPR asked if Williams-Bolar was the "Rosa Parks of Education Reform." And celebrities like actor Donald Glover also took up the cause, saying that he wouldn’t be where he was today had his mother not done exactly the same thing.
At the heart of the matter was the fact that Williams-Bolar was convicted for doing whatmany reasonable parents have done for decades: cleverly manipulating an already rigged educational system to work in best interests of her children.
Duncan stopped short of commenting directly on the case, but did use the opportunity to plug the Obama administration’s love for charter schools.
"Where children have one option and that option isn’t a good one, that’s just absolutely morally unacceptable," Duncan told reporters this week. He added that the administration’s policies of encouraging charters and forcing the bottom 5 percent of schools to radically change their staff will fix the problem, although many public school educators think the solutions are much more complex.
Unfortunately, an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about education reform devolved into predictable squabbles over taxes and property rights.
"I pay a lot of money in property taxes, 53 percent of which go to the schools, and I want that money to go to people who live in the district," Bob Dyer, a Copley resident, told NPR.