In a decision that could have statewide impact, Commonwealth Court has ruled that a Lancaster County school district must provide school bus service to a student from both of his divorced parents' homes.
The court's order, issued this week, upholds an earlier ruling by a county judge who found that Manheim Township School District was violating the state Public School Code by refusing to provide such service to the son of Timothy Watts.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association backed the district in appealing the county court ruling to the state court.
Watts sued the district after the school board, as a cost-cutting measure, adopted a policy for last school year requiring that students could be picked up and dropped off at only one bus stop.
Previously, Watts' son was served by buses at Watts' and his ex-wife's homes, depending on where the boy was staying at the time. Watts and his former wife share equal custody of their son on alternating weeks, and live within two miles of each other on different school bus routes in the district.
County Judge Jeffrey D. Wright in May imposed a permanent injunction requiring that the boy be transported to and from both parents' homes by district buses.
On appeal, the district and the school boards association argued that nothing in the school code requires a district to provide transportation for a pupil from more than one location within its boundaries.
In the Commonwealth Court's opinion, Judge Robert Simpson noted that Watts filed suit after appeals to the district administration, school board and solicitor failed. Watts made those pleas after district officials decided to provide bus service for his son only from the home of his ex-wife.
Simpson noted that the school bus that serves Watts' neighborhood has empty seats and could accommodate Watts' son without adding another stop along its route. The judge observed that Wright in his ruling stressed that the boy has no primary residence because he spends equal time with each parent.
"A school district cannot fulfill its transportation obligation by merely designating one parent's residence as the sole bus stop without any consideration of the child's other residence," Simpson agreed. "To conclude otherwise would deprive the child of free transportation during alternate periods of custody."
And, he observed, by law the district cannot require a pupil to travel more than 1 1/2 miles from his or her home to get on the bus.
"We agree with the school district that the failure of parents - or the attorneys who represent them - to include considerations of school transportation in custody arrangements can lead to complications for taxpayer-supported schools," Simpson wrote.
"In the final analysis, however," he added, "the disposition of this and similar disputes must be driven by the needs of school children as determined by the General Assembly."
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