Schools Required to Bus Children to Both Divorced Parents' Houses
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.