A walking school district is not required to transport a gifted student from middle school to high school in order for him to attend an accelerated class, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.
A split en banc panel ruled Nov. 9 in Mt. Lebanon School District v. J.S. that without evidence to show that the half-mile walk between schools is unsafe or presents unusual complications, the district does not need to provide extraordinary transportation.
J.S., a seventh grader deemed gifted under the Pennsylvania Code, is allowed to attend geometry class at Mt. Lebanon High School, a two-year acceleration in math under his individualized education plan, President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote for the 6-1 majority. J.S. walks from his home to the middle school, then walks a half-mile to the high school for his first-period geometry class. The district, which does not provide any transportation to students unless they are disabled, does not provide him transportation to the high school but does drive him back to the middle school so he doesn’t miss his second-period class.
J.S., through his parents, filed a due process complaint against the district asserting that the failure to transport him to the high school deprives him of an appropriate education in line with his education plan, despite the fact that he has received an “A” in each marking period for the class. A hearing officer concluded that the district is required to transport J.S. from the middle school to the high school each morning under Section 1374 of the Public School Code.
In appealing the order, the district argued that it has discretion under Section 1361 of the code to decide whether to offer transportation, as it has in deciding as a matter of policy to be a walking district.
J.S. asserted that Sections 1362 and 1374, construed together, require the district to transport a gifted student who is required to travel more than one-and-a-half miles to school each day, as he does when his route to the middle school is combined with his route to the high school.
Leavitt, reviewing Section 1374, said it indicates a district “may” decide whether to offer free transportation to a gifted child enrolled in an approved class, and if it elects not to, an “intermediate unit” is tasked with providing it. With that in mind, she said, there is no obligation to provide transportation. Section 1362, meanwhile, does not mandate free transportation, instead indicating that it “may be furnished” to a student residing more than one-and-a-half miles from his school. Considering the two sections in tandem, Leavitt said the hearing officer erred in ordering the school to transport J.S.
Leavitt also drew a distinction between the case at issue and the court’s 1986 decision in Woodland Hills School District v. Department of Education, which the hearing officer relied on. The nature of the walking district in Mt. Lebanon made the Woodland Hills case inapposite, she said. J.S. also offered no evidence that he is physically unable to walk to the high school or that the route between the schools is unsafe, she said.
Finally, Leavitt said, construing Section 1374 to authorize but not mandate that a district provide transportation is in keeping with other provisions of the School Code.
“A court should not interfere with a school board’s exercise of the discretion authorized in Section 1361 ‘unless the action was based on a misconception of law, ignorance through lack of inquiry into the facts necessary for an intellectual judgment, or unless the action is the result of arbitrary will or caprice,’” Leavitt said.
Given the lack of evidence that the district’s policy was implemented in an arbitrary or capricious manner, the court “will not interfere with the district’s exercise of its discretion,” she said.
Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove issued a concurring and dissenting opinion.
The case docket was sealed and information for counsel could not be obtained. The district’s communications department did not respond to a request for comment.