Two Custodial Parents Living In Separate Residences Within Same School District? School District Must Provide Transportation Between Both Parents’ Homes And School
On January 7, 2014, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision in Watts v. Manheim Township School District which likely will increase the transportation costs of school districts statewide.
The student in this case was subject to a 50/50 joint custody arrangement in which he lived with his mother every other week and his father on the alternating weeks. Both parents resided in ManheimTownshipSchool District but were on different existing bus routes. The school district had been providing transportation for the student to and from both residences, but beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, amended its transportation policy to eliminate transportation of students to and from multiple locations, including different residences of divorced and separated parents. This cost-cutting measure was estimated to save the school district about $200,000 in operating expenses each school year.
After the school district notified the student’s parents that the transportation services between his father’s home and school were discontinued but that the school district would continue to provide the student with full-year transportation to and from his mother’s home only, the student’s father filed a complaint for injunctive relief. The Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas granted a permanent injunction and directed the school district to resume busing services for the student to and from his father’s residence within the school district.
The school district appealed. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court considered whether a student whose time was evenly divided between parents with two different residences within the same school district, was entitled to transportation services between both of the parents’ homes and the student’s school.
The school district argued that the manner in which a school district chooses to provide transportation to a resident pupil falls within the school district’s discretionary powers. The school district argued that the Pennsylvania School Code merely required the district to provide transportation to its resident pupils, which it was doing, but that Pennsylvania law did not require resident pupils to be transported to and from multiple locations within one school district.
The Commonwealth Court disagreed with the school district. In affirming the decision of the Court of Common Pleas, it held that Section 1361 of the Pennsylvania School Code, when read in conjunction with Sections 1362 and 1366, as well as a series of peripherally-related cases, require school districts to provide transportation services to and from a child’s residence. The Court held that it therefore follows that if a child has two legal residences within a single school district, the school district must provide transportation services accommodating both residences. Otherwise, the court concluded, the school district would be depriving the child of free transportation during alternate periods of custody.
Although the Watts decision could have a significant and potentially costly impact to school districts, particularly for those that do not currently transport students to multiple locations, the scope and breadth of the ruling is unclear. In Watts, the parents had a 50/50 joint custody arrangement. Additionally, a bus from the student’s school was already serving both homes and had available seats, and could accommodate the student without any further cost or adding an extra stop. The Watts Court, however, did not restrict its holding to the facts in question or discuss how the holding might be applied to other situations, such as where there is no custody agreement, the parents do not adhere to the custody agreement, or where there is not a clear 50/50 split among custodial parents.
For now, it seems that this ruling is limited to only those students who have two separate residences within the boundaries of the district and, arguably, only in cases of a 50/50 split, although the court’s broad analysis leaves the issue open for debate. This ruling does not require schools to transport students to and from different locations other than residences (i.e., for childcare purposes) or to residences outside the district boundaries.
Contact Scott H. Wolpert with any questions about school and special education law.
 Watts v. Manheim Township School District, 935 C.D. 2013 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014).