Wednesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Commonwealth Court, concluding that a student in the Manheim Township School District, who lived with each of his divorced parents on alternating weeks, was entitled to be provided with transportation to both homes.
The District previously did provide transportation to multiple locations for a number of students, whether to the separate homes of divorced parents or to before- and after-school programs, babysitters, etc. As part of a wholesale restructuring of its transportation program to save a significant amount of money, the District not only consolidated some routes but also ended its practice of providing split transportation. Each student would be provided with one bus stop to be used consistently.
The student’s father complained that the one bus stop for this student was too far from the father’s house, since it was the stop that was closer to the mother’s house. After pleading for separate bus stops, noting that the custody arrangement was 50/50, with the child spending just as much time in each home, the father sued the District. The trial court noted that the custody was evenly split, that there was a bus that did go near the father’s home and that had an empty seat on it, and ordered the split transportation arrangement. In other words, the trial court concluded that a child can have two residences for transportation purposes, but it explicitly limited its conclusion to situations like this one, in which the child truly lived in each place as much as the other and in which the District could accommodate the request easily, without needing to add another bus run or even another stop to an existing bus run.
The Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision, and the Supreme Court just affirmed it again in a split decision. The majority considered prior cases in which courts had found a child who lives in two different school districts while subject to a shared custody arrangement could be considered a resident of more than one district for purposes of determining entitlement for transportation services. In that case, the student was entitled to have either district provide transportation to a private school.
Here, then, the Court considered the situation in which both parents live in the same district and the student is looking for two bus stops. While acknowledging that the District was correct that the student could only have one residence for purposes of school attendance, the Court rejected the District’s claim that residency should be considered the same way for transportation purposes.
A concurring justice wrote that the decision was correct but, for similar reasons that caused one justice to dissent, should be limited to situations just like this one – in which the District did have an available seat on a passing bus and could have accommodated the request without financial hardship. Based on the majority’s rationale, though, in which the cost to the District explicitly was rejected as being a concern the legislature deemed relevant in drafting the transportation sections of the Code, I suspect any future cases to be decided the same way, regardless of financial impact.
Districts continue to struggle to deal with the complexities of modern families and living arrangements. Stay tuned, too, because almost certainly the next case will involve parents with something other than a pure 50/50 custody arrangement or a district that does not have an existing bus with a vacant seat that happens to be traveling past the proposed secondary stop.