When Decisions Matter.

Update on the Watts Transportation Triangle

Last year in Watts v. Manheim Township School District, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a decision requiring a school district to provide transportation to and from both homes of a student’s divorced parents, where the parents have custody of the child on a 50/50 basis. The Commonwealth Court found that under Section 1361 of the School Code, districts must provide transportation to “resident pupils,” even if there are two (2) different residences within one (1) district.

The District appealed, and on August 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decision. The Supreme Court agreed that a student has two residences when parents have equally shared physical custody, reasoning that PA Enrollment Regulation Section 11.11 recognizes that students may have two residences.

The Supreme Court held that the legislative intent behind the School Code’s Section 1361 is to compel attendance at school by providing transportation to resident pupils. The Court explained that if transportation were to be provided to only one of the parents’ residences, where the custody arrangement was split 50/50, then the School Code’s purpose would only be accomplished half of the time. The Court concluded that because (1) Section 1361 requires transportation to and from a student’s “residence”, (2) enrollment regulations recognize that students may have two residences, and (3) the legislative intent behind the School Code for school-provided transportation is to compel attendance, then the District must provide transportation to both residences in order to compel attendance and fulfill the District’s obligations under the School Code.

A number of unanswered questions remain in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision as the Court did not address:

  • whether an unequally split custody arrangement qualifies a student as having two residences;
  • whether the custody arrangement must be pursuant to  a Court order or whether it could be by a mutual agreement of the parents; or
  • whether the parents’ exact custodial schedule must be replicated in the provision of transportation (e.g. days of the week and morning v. afternoon).

Additionally, the Court recognized that in this case, the District already had bus routes to each residence, and seats were available for the student on both busses to each residence. The Court did not address whether a district would have to create an additional route to serve the second residence of a student where no route exists.

Given the questions that remain open, the application of the Court’s decision may be narrowed over time as different factual scenarios are tested.  We recommend you establish transportation guidelines relative to the Watts decision and have them reviewed by your Solicitor, so you are prepared to address the unknown factors as they arise.

If you have questions about how this case applies in your District, or if you wish to receive future guidance on this issue, please contact Stock and Leader’s School Law Group.

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