A 5-year-old girl who lives in downtown Charleston but owns property across the Cooper River should be allowed to attend kindergarten in Mount Pleasant, according to a lawsuit her parents filed last month.
If the family succeeds in court, the outcome would set a precedent that expands the interpretation of an obscure 1962 law and would let parents across the state send their child to any public school they choose — if they buy property nearby.
Travis and Alicia McCory live in downtown Charleston just north of Broad Street. Their home is zoned for Memminger Elementary, but they have asked a circuit judge to order the Charleston County School District to enroll their daughter at Mount Pleasant Academy, a high-performing public school in that town's Old Village historic district.
Travis McCory also owns a small house on McCants Drive in Mount Pleasant, about five blocks away from Mount Pleasant Academy. In March 2017, he granted a 1 percent interest in that property to a trust set up in his daughter's name.
On Aug. 16, four days before the school year started, McCory submitted an affidavit to the school district stating that his daughter owned real estate in the Mount Pleasant Academy attendance zone assessed at $300 or more, and he sought to have her enrolled in kindergarten there.
The district denied the request and told the McCorys to enroll their daughter Memminger, which serves the area around their primary home.
The McCorys sued on Aug. 21. Attorney Randy Cooper of Daniel Island is acting as the child's trustee and the family's attorney in the lawsuit. The complaint also asks that the district pay the family's legal fees for filing the lawsuit.
Cooper and the McCorys did not respond to requests for comment via phone and email this week. The school district has filed a motion to dismiss the case and did not provide further comment Thursday.
Old loophole, new twist
The family's case relates to a 1962 state law written amid fiery debates about racial integration. It says a child "shall be entitled to attend the public schools of any school district" as long as the child — and not her parents — owns property in that district with a tax assessed value of at least $300.
Charleston County already has served as a testing ground for the law, S.C. Code of Laws Section 59-63-30(c).
Berkeley County resident and attorney Gayla McSwain sued the Charleston district in 2010, arguing that her daughter should be eligible to apply to Academic Magnet High, a prestigious district-wide magnet school, because she owned a $4,000 vacant lot in North Charleston's Accabee neighborhood.
McSwain won her case in a 3-2 S.C. Supreme Court decision in December 2012, and the ruling opened doors for some. In the last school year, 40 students residing outside Charleston County used the property law to attend Academic Magnet or Charleston County School of the Arts. Most of the students were white, and most hailed from Daniel Island and Cainhoy.
Today in Charleston County, district policy only allows families to use the law to establish eligibility for countywide magnet schools, not for a neighborhood school like Mount Pleasant Academy.
The school district also charges out-of-county parents $6,812 a year, a tuition rate based on the overhead cost per pupil at its schools. If the McCorys win their case, it's unclear whether the same tuition fee would apply.
'Imagine the mess'
Rep. Robert L. Brown, D-Hollywood, serves on the House Education and Public Works Committee and would like to repeal the 1962 property loophole altogether. He said Thursday the law was "archaic" and that the new interpretation would worsen the playing field in a county with broad wealth disparities and a lingering problem of segregation in its schools.
"I feel that’s an unfair advantage that’s being given to the well-to-do," he said.
Meanwhile, the school district is pushing back against the new interpretation of the law. In an Aug. 16 email to Cooper and the McCorys, District General Counsel Natalie Ham rejected their interpretation of the state law.
"This statute does not give residents the right to choose any school within the district they would like to attend," Ham wrote. "Imagine the mess that would cause for districts across the state. If that is your interpretation, I doubt that any judge would agree that was the legislative intent."
John Emerson, the school district's previous general counsel who now has a private practice, agreed with Ham.
"The law was intended to facilitate an opportunity for non-resident students to attend school in another school district," Emerson said Thursday. "It was not intended to allow families to cherry-pick a school in an attendance area in which they do not reside."
In an Aug. 17 email to Cooper, Charleston County School Board Chairwoman Kate Darby noted that Mount Pleasant Academy already is beyond its capacity. Darby noted the school was built for 500 students but currently has 620 enrolled and others on a waiting list.
"Your clients should enroll their child in their home school," Darby wrote.
The district has a process in place for students to request a voluntary transfer to a school outside their attendance zone, but such requests are rarely granted if the destination school is already above its capacity.