Pennsylvania school districts are required to provide free transportation to students whose parents live at two different residences within the same district, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
On Aug. 26, a divided court ruled that a school district must provide transportation to the homes of both parents if they have split custody and both live within the district. The decision in Watts v. Manheim Township School District upheld a ruling from the Commonwealth Court.
The high court’s analysis focused on the interplay between the transportation and compulsory attendance provisions in the state School Code, and rejected the district’s argument that language in the transportation provision was not mandatory.
“Under these circumstances, we conclude that the legislature and the Department of Education intended for the school district to provide transportation to both residences in order to further the goal of compulsory attendance,” Justice Max Baer, who wrote the majority’s opinion, said.
However, Justice Correale F. Stevens said in a dissenting opinion that the majority’s ruling imposed a newly created duty that was “unsupported by any authority.”
“What will this policy cost taxpayers? Will a school district have to rearrange busing every week if parents share custody every other week?” Stevens asked. “Such a sweeping policy that will affect all Pennsylvania school districts should be left to the legislature, which is better suited to thoroughly consider the implications of such a protocol.”
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor wrote a concurring opinion to say the majority opinion was overly broad. He noted that, in this particular case, picking up the student at his father’s house would not increase the district’s transportation costs, and the trial court had limited its ruling to the facts of the case.
“The intermediate court, however, used the appeal as an opportunity to convert the decision into a broader ruling of law to the effect that whenever ‘a child has two residences within a school district, the school district must provide transportation services accommodating both residences,’” Saylor said. “Left to my own devices, I would hew more closely to the limitations as expressed by the county court.”
According to Baer, Timothy L. Watts shared legal and physical custody of C.W., with the child’s mother, with custody alternating on a weekly basis.
Watts lived about four-and-a-half miles from the school, and C.W.’s mother lived about five-and-a-half miles away. The bus stops were about two miles apart, Baer said.
Before 2010, the district had provided students transportation to multiple locations; however, that changed at the start of the 2010-11 school year. The change increased the number of students walking to school, and allowed the district to eliminate four buses and save $200,000 per year, Baer noted.
When the district began enforcing the rule, the school would only transport C.W. to and from the mother’s house because her address was listed as the default address on school paperwork. Watts had to hire a nanny to drive C.W. to her mother’s house, Baer said.
After voicing his objections to the policy, Watts sued the school, seeking an injunction requiring the school to provide the transportation.
Watts relied on Section 1361(1) of the School Code, which says that the school board may provide free transportation. Watts argued that the statute mandated that the school provides transportation to and from a student’s residence.
The district contended that a child can only have one residence under the School Code, and therefore the section only required transportation to and from one residence.
According to Baer, the trial court said that because C.W. lived at both residences equally, the school had to provide transportation to both homes. The court limited its decision to instances when both parents live in the district, the student is subject to an equally split shared-custody agreement, a bus already serves each residence, and the bus could accommodate the student without adding any further costs, Baer said.
The district appealed, and the Commonwealth Court said that while Section 1361(1) does not say a school must provide transportation, the General Assembly’s use of the term “resident pupil” showed that the legislature intended for students to be transported between their residence and school.
The court also held that the district did not have discretion to limit the transportation to one parent’s residence only, although it did have the discretion to determine the manner of transportation.
Baer said the School Code transportation rules allow students to have two residences for enrollment purposes, and that students are not required to attend school if they live far from school and the district does not provide transportation.
Baer said “the school district’s view that providing transportation from father’s residence is merely ‘enhanced’ transportation is erroneous: transportation for half of the year is anything but enhanced, and, in fact, it is necessary to compel attendance.”
Timothy Reese of Reese, Samley, Wagenseller, Mecum & Longer said the fact that custody was split evenly between the parents likely played favorably with the courts, and that he was not surprised the majority decided to rule expansively on the issue.
“It was a question of law and statutory interpretation, and that’s what the majority opinion reflected,” Reese said.
Robert M. Frankhouser of Hartman Underhill & Brubaker, who represented the district, did not return a call seeking comment.
(Copies of the 30-page opinion in Watts v. Manheim Township School District, PICS No. 15-1343, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)