The Commonwealth Court has ruled in a case of first impression that a school district is required under Pennsylvania’s Public School Code to provide a student whose parents are divorced or separated with bus transportation to and from separate stops near each parent’s home, even if they’re both located in the same district.
A three-judge panel in Watts v. Manheim Township School District upheld a Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas judge’s ruling issuing a permanent injunction against Manheim Township School District and directing it to resume bus transportation for a student to and from both his mother’s and father’s homes.
While the school district had argued that it had no obligation to provide bus transportation to two residences within the same district, the court, led by Judge Robert Simpson, disagreed.
According to Simpson, “A school district cannot fulfill its transportation obligation by merely designating one parent’s residence as the sole bus stop without any consideration of the child’s other residence. To conclude otherwise would deprive the child of free transportation during alternate periods of custody.“
Simpson was joined by Judge Anne E. Covey and Senior Judge James Gardner Colins.
In Watts, according to Simpson, plaintiff Timothy L. Watts and his ex-wife live in separate residences within Manheim Township School District and share equal custody of their son, C.W., who is in middle school.
Under their custody agreement, C.W. spends alternating weeks with each parent, Simpson said.
For the 2012-13 school year, the school district began refusing, as a cost-cutting measure, to continue providing students with transportation to and from multiple locations, according to Simpson.
While the district continued providing transportation for C.W. to and from his mother’s home, it stopped providing transportation to and from Watts’ residence, Simpson said.
Because Watts’ job prevented him from driving his son to school and his ex-wife’s home is about two miles away from his residence, Watts was forced to hire someone to take C.W. to school during the weeks he had custody, according to Simpson.
Simpson said that while the school district has a bus route that serves Watts’ neighborhood and could pick up C.W. without adding an extra stop, Watts attempted to no avail to convince school district administration to resume bus service to a stop near his home.
Watts sued the school district, seeking a permanent injunction, according to Simpson.
Following a hearing, the trial judge granted Watts’ request for a preliminary injunction—which it later amended by granting a permanent injunction—and ordered the school district to resume bussing services to and from both of C.W.’s parents’ homes.
The trial judge relied on the Commonwealth Court’s 2012 ruling in Wyland v. West Shore School District, which held that a student whose parents share equal custody can be considered a resident pupil of more than one school district, Simpson said.
Therefore, the trial judge found, C.W. should be allowed to maintain two residences within the same school district, according to Simpson.
But the school district appealed the decision, arguing that by bussing C.W. to and from a stop near his mother’s home, it was fulfilling its statutory duty under Section 1362 to provide transportation to a resident pupil, Simpson said.
The school district further argued on appeal that it was within its discretion to decide not to provide bussing services to multiple residences for a single student, Simpson said.
Simpson, however, disagreed with both points, saying that, under Section 1361 of the School Code, school districts are required to provide transportation to resident pupils, while Section 1362 prohibits school districts from forcing students to travel more than a mile-and-a-half from their homes to the bus stop.
“Although the school district is not required to provide door-to-door transportation service, it must provide a bus stop within one-and-one-half miles from the pupil’s residence,” Simpson said. “Watts’ ex-wife’s residence is located approximately two miles from Watts’ home. Consequently, this location fails to satisfy the mandate of Section 1362, because the school district cannot require C.W. to travel more than one-and-one-half miles from his father’s residence to access the bus.”
Turning to whether the school district had the discretion to discontinue bussing service to a stop near Watts’ residence, Simpson said that “while the school district retains discretion in deciding how to implement its transportation services, it does not have discretion to ignore a statutory mandate.”
“Here, the school district is only partially meeting its statutory obligation of providing Watts’ minor child, a resident pupil, transportation between the middle school and his residence,” Watts said. “By eliminating transportation to and from Watts’ residence in the district, the school district is effectively depriving C.W. of free transportation during the periods of the father’s custody in violation of the clear statutory mandate of the School Code.”
(Copies of the 26-page opinion in Watts v. Manheim Township School District, PICS No. 14-0027, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •