An African-American single mother of two from Akron, Ohio, was sentenced to two concurrent five-year prison sentences for a felony conviction of “falsifying documents” so that her two daughters could attend public school in the mostly white Copley Township outside Akron.
The five-year sentences were suspended, but Kelley Williams-Bolar was ordered to spend 10 days in prison and perform 80 hours of community service afterward for the “crime” of sending her children to the Copley schools by using her the address of her father, a resident of Copley.
Williams-Bolar and her father Edward Williams were also charged with grand theft for “stealing” $30,500, the cost of “out of district” tuition for the two children for two years. The jury couldn’t agree that the two engaged in theft, but they did convict Williams-Bolar on the fraud charge. Judge Patricia Cosgrove reduced the sentence, but insisted that Williams-Bolar serve some time so as not to “demean the seriousness” of the “crime.”
But what exactly is the crime?
Prosecutors claimed that the two children lived with their mother in federally subsidized housing in Akron, but Williams-Bolar maintained throughout that the family shared residency with her father. The three began splitting their time between the two homes, Williams-Bolar said, when their apartment was burglarized shortly after Christmas in 2006, and her father experienced a stroke.
What this case really highlights is the racist double standards applied to poor and working-class African Americans in this country.
Kelley Williams-Bolar was sitting in jail serving her 10-day sentence when Barack Obama claimed in his State of the Union address to loud applause:
[T]he question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed. That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child.
Wasn’t Williams-Bolar and her father attempting to give the two girls “every chance to succeed” by moving them to a school district that, by every measure, is superior to the schools they attended?
Williams-Bolar, who worked as a teacher’s aide for kids in special education while also taking classes at the University of Akron to become certified as a teacher, lives in a city with some of the lowest-rated public schools in the state.
Akron is a typical poverty-stricken, de-industrialized, Midwestern city with high rates of poverty and unemployment. More than a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line. African Americans are 31 percent of the population, but account for 40 percent of those under the poverty line.
Akron schools are underfunded and segregated. Forty-eight percent of students are Black and 78 percent are categorized as “economically disadvantaged.” According to one study ranking school districts in Ohio on a scale of 1 to 10, Akron got a “one” when compared to other school districts in the state and a “three” compared to national averages.
The Copley-Fairlawn School District lies only a few miles west of Williams-Bolar’s home in Akron, but when comparing the schools, they might as well be a million miles away. Copley is 86 percent white, with a Black population of less than 9 percent. Copley schools are ranked as some of the best in the state—they got a rating of “10” in the study. The Copley student body is 75 percent white, and only 11 percent of the student body is classified as economically disadvantaged.
The prosecution of Williams-Bolar revealed how Copley schools stay so lily-white despite being in such close proximity to Akron’s large Black population. School officials worried about students “illegally” attending their schools have offered $100 rewards to anyone who turns those students in.
In the Williams-Bolar case, the school district paid an off-duty Akron cop $6,000 to follow her. One can assume that school officials became suspicious of the girls simply because they were Black children in a predominately white school district. It stands to reason that if Williams-Bolar were white, her daughters never would have been suspected, and she never would have been prosecuted.
The school district and county prosecutors were bound and determined to make this Black single mother an example to other families that might dare to try to get a good education for their kids. Despite the fact that the girls were pulled out of the Copley-Fairlawn School District in 2009, the school district and the county refused to drop the case, or even negotiate lesser charges.
The judge, Patricia Cosgrove, while later trying to portray herself as sympathetic after receiving “hundreds” of angry phone calls, nevertheless insisted on making Williams-Bolar go to jail “so that others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.”
For his part, Brian Poe, the Copley-Fairlawn school superintendent, left no doubt about the motivations of putting Williams-Bolar in jail when he told reporters: “We have, for the past three and a half years, gone after residency cases and had residency hearings…it’s something that’s important to us. We are not an open-enrollment district.”
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On three separate occasions—1991, 2000 and 2002—the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled that the way public schools were funded in the state was unconstitutional. The court ruling found an “over-reliance” on local property taxes, “forced borrowing” and insufficient state funding for school buildings. These rulings were consistent over a 10-year period—until a right-wing court was elected and declared that the state Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction on the question.
So Ohio public schools were allowed to operate illegally for a decade, in violation of a state Supreme Court ruling, and yet no one went to jail for forcing mostly African American children to attend underfunded schools.
It’s hard to think of a clearer example of the hypocrisy of American law than this case of a single mother arrested, prosecuted and jailed for “falsifying” documents so her children could attend a decent school—while the perpetrators of real crimes in this society, like the Wall Street bankers who falsified and tampered with documents to grease the wheels of the foreclosure process, will never see in a single day in court or jail.
Williams-Bolar’s jailing is meant as an example to any other parent desperate to see their child get equal access to education.
She is paying a steep price. Williams-Bolar is only 12 credits away from receiving her certification to become a public school teacher, but she’ll no longer be able to become a teacher in Ohio because of the felony conviction now on her record.
It’s also possible under laws created during the Clinton administration that because Williams-Bolar now has a felony conviction, she will lose her residency eligibility in Akron public housing.
Ohio is in the grips of a severe budget crisis, and a new right-wing governor, John Kasich, is threatening budget cuts across the board—including to education, which will cripple the Akron school district even more. Kasich, who installed an all-white cabinet for the first time since 1963, doesn’t care about the education of poor, Black children.
The politicians and so-called education experts who support charter schools and other “reforms” claim that the problems in public education are “complicated.” But this case shows the problems really aren’t that complex at all. Tying funding of public schools to property taxes inevitably creates a two-tier education system—one for the rich and one for the poor.
When Black children are overrepresented in the ranks of poverty, it means they are condemned an unequal education. Kelley Williams-Bolar took matters into her own hands and defiantly insists that is she had it to do over, even knowing the outcome, ” I would do it again.”
Public education should indeed be for the public. Education should be a right for all, not just the rich and white.
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