The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s 2014 student transportation decision in Watts v. Manheim is likely to raise school district transportation costs in a climate where school districts are trying to save money on busing.
In 2012, the Commonwealth Court decided the Wyland v. West Shore School District case in which the Court expanded on a 1985 ruling to find that – at least for transportation purposes – a student may have more than one residence necessitating more than one bus stop. The Wyland case involved parents living in different school districts who each had 50 percent custody of a private school student. The Court found that once a school district agrees to provide transportation services to its students, it must provide identical services to resident private school students even where those students’ “primary residence” is elsewhere. This transportation obligation continued even when the other school district of primary residence was also providing transportation.
The actual consequence of the Wyland case was that the father’s school district had to provide busing between the school and the father’s house, and the mother’s school district had to provide busing between the school and the mother’s house.
Building on the 2012 Wyland decision, Judge Simpson, who also authored the Wyland decision, wrote the majority Commonwealth Court panel opinion in the Watts case on January 7, 2014. In Watts, the Court determined that where parents of a public school student are separated but living within the same school district, the school district may have to provide transportation to both parents’ residences.
Similar to the Wyland case, the parents in the Watts matter each had 50 percent physical custody, although it is unclear if “50 percent physical custody” is relevant to the findings in either case. The rationale used in both cases could just as easily apply where one parent had greater physical custody than the other. The fact that the parents in Watts lived approximately two miles apart was clearly relevant, since the court found that a bus stop could be no greater than one and a half miles (along a safely traveled public road) from the residence according to Section 1362 of the School Code.
The Watts case clearly permits anyone facing the same custody arrangement as the Watts family to demand that their school district consider multiple bus stops. However, it is not clear whether someone with less than 50 percent custody can make that same demand. A school district would be well served to review all the facts and options with its solicitor prior to deciding that issue one way or another. Footnote 7 of the opinion provides a glimmer of hope: “Nevertheless, to the extent the School District’s transportation protocol eliminates other bus stops, such as to daycare or after-school activities, it does not violate the School Code as there is no requirement to provide transportation services other than between school and the pupil’s residence.”
Since this is a recent decision, the Manheim School District may still request reconsideration from the whole Commonwealth Court, and it may request that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court consider the matter on appeal. However, neither Court is required to grant such requests, and for now this decision establishes the current law on this transportation issue.