The Charleston County School District prohibits noncounty residents from attending its magnet schools, but 15 such students are enrolled in its two flagship programs, Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts.
The 15 students are going to be allowed to stay at the award-winning schools until the state Supreme Court rules on a local case in which a Berkeley County student has challenged the district's policy.
District officials said Tuesday they are trying to enroll 15 Charleston County residents from the schools' waiting lists so no one is being displaced.
"We're trying to resolve this in the fairest way to all of the parties to the extent that it doesn't impair the education of the other students or make instruction unmanageable," said John Emerson, the district's attorney.
Magnet schools typically verify the residency of a sample of 20 percent of its enrollment per quarter, and the remainder of the district's magnet schools will start those audits next week.
District leaders launched schoolwide audits for Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts because of concerns about noncounty residents enrolled in those schools.
Three employees spent two weeks pulling each student's file and comparing affidavits of residency with a lease or recent tax bill and an additional proof of residency, such as a utility bill or voter registration card. All three documents had to have the same address.
The audit found eight students who live outside of Charleston County attend School of the Arts and seven such students attend Academic Magnet. Eight of those students are freshmen, six are sophomores and one is a senior.
Emerson said letters would be sent to the students' families this week alerting them that the district is aware that they live outside the county, and that district policy prohibits them from being at magnet schools.
The letters also will inform them of the district's decision to allow the students to remain in the schools until the state Supreme Court rules on a related case.
A state law allows children to attend school in any district if the child owns property there with a tax assessed value of $300 or more. The district's position is that the law doesn't give parents control over the school they wish their children to attend, and it conflicts with district policy barring noncounty residents from magnet schools.
One Berkeley County parent, Gayla McSwain, an attorney, sued the district on the issue, and a Circuit Court issued an order last summer that McSwain's daughter, Storm McSwain Harvey, didn't have to live in Charleston County to attend Academic Magnet High as long as she had property in her name in the district.
Emerson said if the courts rule in the district's favor, families would be expected to relocate to Charleston to continue their child's enrollment in the magnet schools. He said he hopes the state Supreme Court will rule this academic school year.
For this school year, district officials decided that noncounty residents could stay, because it's a hardship on them to be removed mid-year.
"And I think there's a good chance that if we did remove them from the schools that they would file a legal challenge and the courts would require us to keep them there," he said. "It doesn't seem fair to those kids, and it does seem like it would likely be futile."
Emerson briefed the school board on the issue during Monday night's executive session.
Charleston has eight county-wide magnet schools, which means schools draw students from across the county rather than a particular neighborhood and offer a specialized program. In the Lowcountry, Berkeley County has Howe Hall AIMS, while Dorchester 2 has Rollings Middle, although it's not referred to as a magnet.
Berkeley and Dorchester 2 prohibit noncounty residents from enrolling in those magnet schools, and all students are required to submit proof of residency. Those are checked for every student, officials in both districts said.
Starting with the 2012-13 school year, Charleston plans to have a new deadline for parents to establish residency, which hasn't existed in the past, said Audrey Lane, the district's deputy for organizational advancement.
Non-Charleston County families still would be able to apply to the magnet schools, but they would be required to establish county residency by Aug. 1. If they haven't, their spot would be given to someone else, Lane said.
The same three-person team that reviewed Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts will start next week auditing every remaining magnet school. They will verify 15 percent of the student body, and an internal team will check 5 percent.
Those reviews happen each quarter, so 80 percent of the school's addresses are verified annually, Lane said.
Entire schoolwide reviews aren't possible because of a lack of resources, but Elliot Smalley, the district's deputy of strategic planning and communications, said district staff would be open to doing more expansive reviews if the board sets aside more money for that effort.
"That's an ongoing conversation with the board -- what are our top priorities, and what do we need to address those," he said.