By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
When school officials and parents disagree about where a student lives, either side in the dispute can ask the state to referee.
The rarely used process has a big advantage: It avoids the courts.
So why wasn't the Kelley Williams-Bolar case decided that way?
It could have been if Williams-Bolar hadn't gone to court first.
Instead, the 40-year-old Akron mother was convicted last month of a felony for falsifying documents to keep her two kids in Copley-Fairlawn schools.
Process for disputes
The state statutes governing where children attend school span nearly 10 printed pages, but a single sentence describes how to resolve such disputes: ''In the event of a disagreement, the superintendent of public instruction shall determine the school district in which the parent resides.''
Last year, state Superintendent Deborah Delisle was asked to decide seven residency cases throughout Ohio, including one from Streetsboro and one from Woodridge near Akron.
Delisle decided that a parent in the Streetsboro case actually lived in Ravenna. She didn't have to decide the Woodridge case. The father presented paperwork to local school officials proving the child lived in the district.
''That entire situation went away before Dr. Delisle would have had to rule on it,'' said Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis.
Williams-Bolar's case wasn't so easy to resolve.
In August 2006, Kelley Williams-Bolar enrolled her two daughters in the Copley-Fairlawn district under her father's address in Copley.
By early 2007, the district was getting reports that Williams-Bolar and other parents were sneaking their children into Copley-Fairlawn.
The district held a hearing on Oct. 26, 2007, and Williams-Bolar was told she would have to find another school for her children.
Williams-Bolar could have appealed the decision to the state superintendent, according to John Britton, the lawyer hired by the Copley-Fairlawn district.
Instead, Williams-Bolar and her father went to Summit County Juvenile Court and filed a grandparent power of attorney affidavit, which allows grandparents to stand in for the parents in legal and medical matters.
The juvenile court handles about 100 caretaker and grandparent affidavits a year, said Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio.
Typically, the affidavits are used when a parent is seriously ill, in prison, receiving drug or mental-health treatment or deployed in the military.
''There's a lot of really, really good reasons that this affidavit exists,'' Teodosio said. ''It allows a parent to make temporary arrangements for their child without giving up custody.''
But Ohio law bars using the document simply to justify switching schools.
''It indicates specifically in the affidavit that it's not being signed solely for the purposes of enrolling a child in a different school district,'' Teodosio said.
Above the parents' signature line is a warning in capital letters that falsifying information is a crime.
Teodosio said the law doesn't require proof that the parents' claims are true just an Ohio notary's seal.
''The grandparent is required to file it with the court, but we don't have a hearing,'' Teodosio said. ''They bring it in, they file with the court and the court more or less acts as the custodian or the record keeper for the affidavit.''
The affidavit was accepted by Copley-Fairlawn schools.
''We got it, and we agreed to let the kids stay because we now had a document from the Juvenile Court,'' Britton said. ''It was over.''
Except it wasn't.
''The reports came back that they were still bringing the kids every day to the bus stop and Mom was driving them in from Akron,'' Britton said.
After school official questioned the validity of the affidavit, Williams-Bolar asked the state superintendent to intervene.
It was too late.
The state asked each side to submit arguments. Williams-Bolar's attorney responded; the district didn't.
A few weeks later, in a letter dated Jan. 17, 2008, the state informed both sides that it considered the matter ''closed at this time.''
Williams-Bolar testified in court last month that she understood the letter to mean that the residency dispute had been decided in her favor.
She was wrong.
Ohio Department of Education spokesman Patrick Gallaway said the affidavit took the case out of the hands of the superintendent.
''The school district was challenging the validity of the affidavit, which is a legal question that belongs in court,'' he said.
District officials were convinced that Williams-Bolar had lied to the Juvenile Court.
During the investigation, district officials said they discovered that Williams-Bolar was living in a home on Hartford Avenue, paying subsidized rent through the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority.
She received an additional discount because she had signed papers claiming her daughters lived with her.
''All this stuff was brought forth to the Juvenile Court judge in a hearing,'' Britton said. ''There was a trial. It's the first of its kind, I think, in Ohio.''
Judge Teodosio said she could not comment about confidential records regarding the case, but she said she has never had an affidavit challenged before.
When she ruled in a hearing on June 3, 2008, that the children were living in Akron, she had in her hands an AMHA investigative report. The report showed that Williams-Bolar told AMHA police that the children had always lived with her in Akron in direct conflict with what she told the court.
The ruling voided the affidavit and meant the girls could no longer attend Copley-Fairlawn schools, although they were allowed to finish the 2007-08 school year.
Britton said that could have been the end of the story.
''We got what we wanted,'' Britton said. ''We were not there to prosecute a crime.''
Trail of documents
The Summit County prosecutor wanted more.
Britton said he doesn't know exactly how or why Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh got involved, but he wasn't surprised.
''When you go down a path like this and you tell these kinds of lies and you put them on paper, this gets people's attention,'' Britton said.
Walsh posted a statement on the prosecutor's website explaining why she pursued felony charges against Williams-Bolar.
She said Williams-Bolar lied about where she lived to Copley-Fairlawn schools, the county Board of Elections, the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles and juvenile court.
''She falsified documents, engaged in many different acts of deception to four different governmental agencies, and continued to do so over a two-year period,'' Walsh said.
Walsh said she didn't offer Williams-Bolar a chance to plea to lesser misdemeanors, saying she lacked remorse. ''She has publicly stated that if she had the opportunity to do it all over, she would do the same thing again.''
A mother's concerns
But why did she do it in the first place?
Williams-Bolar's father, Edward Williams, declined to discuss the case Friday. ''We've said what we've had to say. We're not going to rehash this,'' he said.
Williams-Bolar could not be reached for comment, but she clearly stated her motive, both at her trial and after:
The problem wasn't that she was dissatisfied with the education her daughters were getting in Akron schools a statement she has made repeatedly.
Williams-Bolar wanted her children to go to Copley-Fairlawn schools so they wouldn't be alone at her Akron home while she was at work as a teaching assistant for special-needs children at Akron's Buchtel High School.
Her attorney told the jury at her criminal trial that her home had been vandalized and broken into three times. He said she called police more than a dozen times.
If her daughters were enrolled in Copley-Fairlawn, they could get on and off the bus near their grandparents' Copley home and stay with them.
''I didn't feel they would be safe as latchkey children. They were too young to be left alone,'' Williams-Bolar said this week. ''I'm not perfect, and I'm not a Rosa Parks. I'm just a mom looking out for her kids.''