Ohio reduces convictions in closely watched school-choice case
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Ohio Governor John Kasich said on Wednesday that an Akron-area mother convicted of felony charges for lying about where she lived to enroll her children in a suburban school district deserves a second chance.
Kelley Williams-Bolar, 41, attracted national attention and drew the support of school-choice advocates after she was convicted and jailed for using her father's address to enroll her two daughters in the higher performing Copley Fairlawn School District instead of the Akron Public Schools.
Kasich, a Republican, reduced Williams-Bolar's two felony convictions to misdemeanors, overruling the state's parole board, which last week rejected a pardon in the case.
"When I first heard about this situation, it seemed to me that the penalty was excessive for the offense," Kasich said.
"In addition, the penalty could exclude her from certain economic opportunities for the rest of her life. So, today I've reduced those felony convictions to what I think are the more appropriate, first-degree misdemeanors. No one should interpret this as a pass. It's a second chance."
Ohio law allows school districts to pursue legal charges against people who falsify records for school residency.
Williams-Bolar, who said she was simply trying to put her children in the safest school district possible, had been convicted of lying on enrollment and federal free lunch applications and served nine days in jail.
Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the citizen coalition ColorOfChange.org, which petitioned for Williams-Bolar's pardon, applauded Kasich's decision.
"It has long been obvious that the punishment this single mother faced far outweighed whatever missteps she made in the quest to keep her children safe," Robinson said.
His group had delivered 165,000 petition signatures to Governor Kasich in February, asking him to grant clemency to Williams-Bolar, who feared a felony conviction would derail her plan to become a teacher.
Kasich's deal comes with some strings attached.
Williams-Bolar will remain on probation, must pass random drug screenings, refrain from alcohol, perform 80 hours of community service, maintain full time employment or attend school full time, and complete an approved mentorship program.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh refrained from criticizing Kasich but praised the jury for handing down the felony convictions and said she was pleased the Ohio Parole Board also carefully considered the case.
"Governor Kasich is not required to uphold a jury's verdict, nor must he follow the Parole Board's recommendation to reject clemency, even when that recommendation is unanimous." Bevan Walsh said.
Williams-Bolar, who works as a teacher's aide, had feared felony convictions would prevent her from earning a teacher's license. Her attorneys have argued misdemeanor convictions would make it easier for Williams-Bolar to keep her job and, someday, become a licensed teacher in the state of Ohio.
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Cynthia Johnston)