School Must Bus Kids to Both Parents’ Homes in Shared Custody Case
In Watts v. Mannheim Twp. S.D., No. 935 C.D. 2013 (January 7, 2014), the Commonwealth Court was confronted with the issue of whether a school district must provide bus service to the homes of both parents who share custody of their children on a week on-week off basis. The school district filed the appeal, arguing that the School Code does not require it to provide transportation to a resident pupil to and from more than one location within the school district. Practically speaking, the school district objected because of concerns for the child’s safety and allocation of bussing resources. When deciding how many buses to dispatch on each route, and in keeping track of the children from school to home, and vice versa, the school district faces an administrative burden when children of divorced and separated parents board and depart at different locations. The school district noted that 1/8 to 3/16ths of its students were subject to a shared custody arrangement. While the schools once provided bus transportation to both residences, it announced and then phased in a cost-cutting plan, forcing parents to choose.
The trial court in Watts relied heavily upon Wyland v. West Shore School District, 52 A.3d 572 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012), which holds that a student who is subject to an equally split shared physical custody agreement can be a resident pupil of more than one school district. Analogously, a student whose parents share custody equally and reside in the same school district may have more than one residence.
Examining the School Code, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the School District that there was no statutory or case law mandate to provide bus transportation to more than one location or a particular location. The law delegates the right to the school districts the right to manage its student transportation, so long as its policies are reasonable. The student countered with a quasi-equal protection argument, contending that children who are in shared custody arrangements have a right to transportation to both parent’s residences. Watts pointed to case law holding that student transportation cannot be limited to the child’s “primary residence or domicile.” The Commonwealth Court seemed to be convinced by these arguments, holding that the School District’s interpretation would leave a child stranded when in the custody of one of its parents.
Curiously, the Commonwealth Court pointed to the law that excuses school districts from providing transportation to children who reside within two miles from a school (the same reason why Mt. Lebanon has no bus service). Since the parents in this case resided more than two miles apart, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the child could not walk from the bus stop at one parent’s home to the other parent’s home. When the school district argued that providing only one bus stop per child was a reasonable exercise of its discretion, the Commonwealth Court disagreed, holding that a school district may not reasonably exercise its discretion to abrogate a statutory mandate.
Watts contains an excellent summary of school bussing law, for those who encounter this issue in their shared custody cases and practices.