It is no exaggeration to say that Bob and Debi Poist were inordinately interested in having their daughter attend Hampstead's Shiloh Middle School.
The couple interviewed Principal G. Thomas Hill -- for two hours. Then their daughter, Brittany, met with him. Once the family decided that Shiloh was the school for them, they bought Bob Poist's parents' property two miles away and built a $750,000 Victorian-style home -- simply because it was in the Shiloh district.
At least, it used to be.
Unbeknown to the Poists, school officials had redrawn Shiloh's attendance boundaries the summer before Brittany was to begin sixth grade, cutting their home out by a half-mile and dictating that Brittany attend North Carroll Middle School.
The Poists falsified a transfer application -- at the suggestion of a school system employee, the family says -- that paved the way in August 2000 for Brittany to attend Shiloh anyway, where she was a straight-A student with lots of friends and a full after-school schedule of drama club, choir and the school newspaper.
But in November, school officials discovered that the Poists had lied on their transfer application, and have ordered that Brittany attend North Carroll Middle.
The Poists have appealed that decision, requested a boundary change and can't understand why Brittany isn't allowed to remain at Shiloh while their appeal winds through the system -- which school officials in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties say is de rigueur when a comparable issue is appealed in their school systems.
'It's really upsetting'
"We love that school," Bob Poist said. "We absolutely love it. We liked Mr. Hill's philosophy, his hands-on approach, his open-door policy, the fact that he got to hand-pick his staff. Brittany stayed after school three days a week with all her activities. It's really upsetting now because we felt like part of the family. The other day, we went up to the school to get some papers, and we felt like outsiders."
In some respects, the Poists' case is not unusual.
Families have been lying on out-of-district request applications as long as school systems have had procedures in place to allow students to attend schools other than the ones to which they are assigned based on attendance boundaries. Some families -- especially those with student athletes hoping to catch the eye of college recruiters -- go to great lengths to deceive school officials and enlist others to lie for them.
Like neighboring school systems, Carroll County has a staff whose duties include investigating families that might have broken the rules to send their children to Carroll schools. At times, their work includes surveillance and intense questioning of students, parents and neighbors in an effort to build a case against a family.
Thick file of denials
Although school officials don't keep track of the number of students they catch breaking the rules each year, Pupil Services Director Cynthia A. Little has an 8-inch-thick file of this year's cases in which students were denied transfers, or were caught attending different schools regardless.
The Poists' case is unusual in that the couple quickly acknowledged that they had been untruthful in claiming that a neighbor nearby -- and within the Shiloh district -- watched Brittany after school. But they maintain that they meant no harm.
"We were not intentionally trying to defraud the school system," said Poist, a former Maryland state trooper and former Redskins linebacker who runs a financial consulting business.
"That's evident by our lack of covering our tracks. I'm not a foolish person -- if we intended to defraud the school system, we would have had a better story. The truth is, we didn't tell our daughter to lie, we didn't prepare for this situation, and we simply thought that what we were doing was an accepted practice."
Confidence in staff
Little said she is confident that her staff would not encourage a parent to falsify an official document, regardless of circumstances. She agreed to discuss the case after the Poists signed a waiver to release documents about Brittany's situation.
"I don't doubt that someone may have said, 'These are the reasons you can get an out-of-district approval, and if you have a baby sitter in the school district, it probably will be approved,'" she said. "Maybe there was a misunderstanding. I just don't know."
Little notes that school officials allowed Brittany to remain at Shiloh until the end of the quarter, although students in such cases typically are transferred to their assigned schools within five days.
Waiting for consideration
The Poists are waiting for the county Board of Education to consider their appeal. Interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he does not intend to forward the Poists' request for a boundary change to the school board, and he does not think the system needs the kind of stay-of-enforcement procedure that would allow Brittany to remain at Shiloh while her case is being appealed.
"They know the rules of the game when they apply for out-of-district," Ecker said. "And they know the consequences -- or they should know, because they're published in our rules and handbooks -- if they're found to be in an out-of-district school without proper justification."
Brittany, 12, has been continuing her studies at home. Her last day at Shiloh was Jan. 18, and her parents have declined to send her to North Carroll Middle, noting its crowded classrooms and complaints, made by North Carroll parents during a recent town meeting, about the school's inconsistent heating system, rusty-tasting water and leaky roof.
Besides, Brittany says she loves Shiloh Middle.
"Shiloh ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me," Brittany told school officials at a recent public hearing on redistricting. "Lots of people say that the middle school years are the hardest time in life. So far, this has been the best part of mine. ... Sometimes these problems get so complicated that common sense is thrown out the window. ... Please allow me to go back to Shiloh."