school bus

Imagine that you and you ex equally share custody of your child, but the school district you both live in will only bus your child to your ex’s house, two miles away. In fact, just in order to make it to your job every day, you have to hire a driver to make sure your child gets to and from school. This was exactly the situation Timothy Watts found himself in, until he sued his son’s school district, and won.

Now, thanks to the recent Commonwealth Court case of Watts v. Manheim Township School District, — A.3d —- (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014), published Jan. 7, Pennsylvania public schools are required to provide transportation services to and from two different residences within the same school district. The impact on separated and divorced parents could be huge.

Watts shared physical custody of his son on an alternating weekly basis. This custody arrangement was by court order. Watts and his ex-wife both lived in the Manheim Township School District, but on different bus routes. Prior to the 2011-12 school year, the school district provided transportation to and from different residences of divorced and separated parents; in fact, during the 2010-11 school year, there were 400 such students who were transported to multiple locations, 50 to 75 of whom were subject to custody agreements. The district’s school board eliminated transportation to multiple residences in the 2011-12 school year in an effort to reduce costs, but did not enforce the policy until the 2012-13 school year.

Watts’ son was one of the children affected by this change. Watts was informed that the district would no longer transport his son between his home and his son’s middle school, but it would continue to provide transportation to his ex-wife’s house, and that his ex-wife’s residence would be his son’s official bus stop.

This was so even though the district served Watts’ neighborhood, and the bus that did so had unassigned seats that could accommodate Watts’ son without even adding a bus stop. Watts lived two miles from his ex-wife and, if Watts’ son were to walk the two miles to his approved bus stop at his mother’s house, he would need to cross a heavily trafficked highway. Due to Watts’ work schedule, he was required to hire an individual to drive his son to and from school on the weeks he had custody.

Before he sued the school district, Watts spoke with the school district administration, appeared before the school board and wrote to the school solicitor, all to no avail.

Watts ultimately filed a complaint against the school district seeking a writ of mandamus, a declaratory order and injunctive relief. Watts also filed a petition for preliminary injunction. The trial court granted his request for a preliminary (and ultimately a permanent) injunction, and directed the school district to resume bussing services to and from his house. The school district appealed. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association filed a friend-of-the court brief regarding the impact of the case on schools across the state and in support of the school district’s position.

The Commonwealth Court, in deciding this issue of first impression, affirmed the trial court and held that school districts are required to provide transportation to a resident pupil to and from more than one location within the school district.

There was no dispute that Watts’ son was a resident pupil of the school district, and that Section 1361 of the School Code requires a school district to provide transportation to resident pupils. However, the school district argued that there was no obligation to transport the child to more than one residence.

The Commonwealth Court first noted that Section 1362 of the School Code requires that a school district provide a bus stop to a student within one-and-a-half miles of the child’s residence; therefore, requiring Watts’ son to travel two miles to his mother’s house violated this provision.

The court stated that school districts have a great deal of discretion in implementing bussing protocols and policies; indeed, there are significant economic and logistic considerations in coordinating such efforts. However, school districts are not free to disregard statutory mandates, which the court found the school district did here.

Further, in reaching its determination, the trial court and Commonwealth Court relied on Wyland v. West Shore School District, 52 A.3d 572 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).

In Wyland, the mother and father also equally shared custody of their children pursuant to a court order. The father of the children resided in the West Shore School District and the mother resided in the Cumberland Valley School District. The parents sent their children to a private elementary school in the West Shore School District. Cumberland Valley agreed to transport the children to and from the mother’s home to the private school, at which point West Shore stopped transportation to and from the father’s residence. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court determined that the students were resident pupils of both West Shore and Cumberland Valley and, by stopping transportation services, West Shore violated Section 1361.

Wyland stands for the proposition that a student can have two legal residences for purposes of Section 1361 and that a child need only live with a custodial parent in the school district to trigger the district’s duty to transport the child. In Watts, the court held that only providing bussing services to and from the mother’s house does not adequately service the student’s other legal residence in the district, or Watts’ house.

This case is not just significant for attorneys who practice education law, but for family law attorneys as well. In a time where school districts are forced to stretch tax dollars as far as possible, it is all too common that districts make the cuts like Manheim Township School District did here. The involvement of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association in the Watts appeal underscores the stake school districts had in this decision.

Family law attorneys must be aware of the Watts decision and the impact it may have in custody cases. In crafting custody orders, family court judges take into consideration how and if parents are able to ensure their children can get to school.

If, before Watts, a school district refused to bus a student to a father’s house, but did bus to a mother’s house, like in Watts, a judge may well have taken this into consideration and relegated the father to having custody every other weekend if the father worked and could not hire a driver to take his children to school. Now, under Watts, the father would be on equal footing because he would be entitled to bussing services as well. 

Andrew D. Taylor is a partner in the family law practice group at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, where he represents individuals in all matters of divorce, support and child custody.