Storm M.H. ex rel. McSwain v. Charleston County Bd. of Trustees – Case Brief Summary (South Carolina)

In Storm M.H. ex rel. McSwain v. Charleston County Bd. of Trustees, 400 S.C. 478, 735 S.E.2d 492, 494 (S.C. 2012), a student, a resident of Berkeley County, South Carolina, applied for admission into a prestigious magnet school in Charleston County, South Carolina.

The student was accepted, but was required to establish residency to comply with school policy. Id.

The plaintiff--mother contacted the Charleston County school district's general counsel, and alleged that the following South Carolina law permitted the student to attend the magnet school, stating (spacing added):

Children . . . shall be entitled to attend the public schools of any school district, without charge, only if qualified under the following provisions of this section:

(a) Such child resides with its parent or legal guardian;

(b) The parent or legal guardian, with whom the child resides, is a resident of such school district; or

(c) The child owns real estate in the district having an assessed value of three hundred dollars or more; and

(d) The child has maintained a satisfactory scholastic record in accordance with scholastic standards of achievement . . .; and

(e) The child has not been guilty of infraction of the rules of conduct promulgated by the trustees of such school district . . . . Id. at 495, n.3.

The general counsel agreed, but indicated that the plaintiff needed to purchase land in the student's name to fully comply with all of the elements. Id.

Despite this, the defendant, the district's board of trustees ("trustees board"), held otherwise, stating that Charleston County residency was required. Id.

The plaintiff filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, and the trustees board filed its motion to dismiss. Id. at 496.

The trial court concluded that the trustees board's "residency" policy was unlawful as a violation of state law. After both parties noted their respective appeals, the student purchased property in Charleston County. Id.

On appeal, the trustees board maintained that state law provided it with discretion to govern educational matters, including school attendance and admission guidelines. Id. at 497.

The plaintiff avowed that the "statutes entitled a child to attend a public school, without charge, if the child either resided or owned real estate within the school district in which the school was located." Id.

The Court determined that:

This "resident only" criterion ran afoul of the state statute because any child meeting the threshold established by this provision, either as a resident or a property owner of the subject school district, was entitled to attend that district's schools. Thus, while we agree with the board that the statute did not necessarily confer a child the right to attend a particular school within a school district, the Charleston County school district may not utilize this provision to revoke admission to a child qualifying to attend a district's school merely because a child qualified to attend school in the district by virtue of property ownership rather than residence . . . . Id. at 498.

Because the student comported with all the abovementioned elements and was accepted into the magnet school, the Court affirmed the grant of declaratory judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Id. at 499-500