Mount Pleasant Academy (recurring)

Parents residing in downtown Charleston sued the school district to admit their daughter to kindergarten at Mount Pleasant Academy. They argued that their daughter was eligible to attend there because she was a 1-percent owner of property in the attendance zone. File/Staff

A Circuit Court judge has ordered the Charleston County School District to admit a 5-year-old Charleston girl to a school in Mount Pleasant because she partly owns property there.

The ruling appears to open a new avenue for parents to send their children to any public school they choose — if they have the money to buy land.

The girl's parents, Travis and Alicia McCory, live on Trumbo Street in downtown Charleston in the Memminger Elementary attendance zone. Travis McCory gave his daughter a 1 percent ownership stake via a trustee in a house he owns in the Mount Pleasant Academy attendance zone. He then submitted paperwork to the School District arguing his daughter should be admitted to attend school where she owns property.

When the district's administration refused, the parents filed suit in Charleston County Court of Common Pleas.

In a two-page declaratory judgment issued Sept. 7, Circuit Court Judge Jennifer McCoy ordered the Charleston County School Board to admit the girl to Mount Pleasant Academy immediately.

McCoy did not list any reasons in her ruling other than noting she had considered arguments from both sides and evidence submitted to the court.

It's unclear if Charleston County will appeal. Neither the School District's attorneys nor those for the plaintiff family responded to requests for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit might not have been necessary. The McCory family also had asked their constituent school board to approve transferring their daughter into Mount Pleasant Academy. According to a court filing, the McCorys' daughter was No. 4 on a waiting list for the school when the school year began and a seat recently opened up for her by the time McCoy's ruling was posted.

McCoy's ruling effectively widens an existing 1962 state law that says a child “shall be entitled to attend the public schools of any school district” as long as the child owns property in that district with a tax assessed value of at least $300.

The law considers the tax assessment, not on the purchase price. It passed at a time of white opposition to racial integration of public schools in South Carolina, and its opponents complained it was "aimed at a particular race."

In the 21st century, Berkeley and Dorchester County residents have used the law to send their children to elite magnet schools in Charleston County by purchasing land and putting it in their children's names.

The McCory's case is believed to be the first time that law was used to seek admittance to a school within a particular school district.

In an Aug. 29 motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers for the Charleston County School District argued the law "only relates to requirements for a child to enroll in a school district" and that state law leaves decisions about individual school placement up to the districts.

"Here, a practical and fair interpretation of 59-63-30(c) would not include adding additional terms allowing parents to jump to the front of a waiting list to compel enrollment in a specific school," the district argued.

Natalie Ham, the district's in-house legal counsel, wrote more directly in an Aug. 16 email to the McCory family: "This statute does not give residents the right to choose any school within the district they would like to attend. 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.”

In 2012, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in a 3-2 decision that a child who lived in Berkeley County but owned a vacant lot in North Charleston could attend Academic Magnet High School in Charleston County.

In the 2017-18 school year, 40 students used the property loophole to attend that and another Charleston County magnet school. Of those, 34 were white and 34 came from the Daniel Island and Cainhoy areas.

The School District has charged out-of-county students' families an annually adjusted tuition rate to make up for the fact they don't pay taxes in the county.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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