School bus service for PA children with shared custody

In a landmark decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Count dealt with parents who shared physical custody of a child and lived in the same school district. Father requested the school district to provide bus transportation to the home of each parent, per the custody schedule. The school district refused, citing a district policy and financial considerations. Father won on the trial court and Commonwealth Court level and the school district appealed to the Supreme Count.

A school district can decide not to provide any free bus service at all. But when the school district provides free bus service, then certain requirements for that bus service apply. The Supreme Court found that whenever parents have shared physical custody of a child and both parents reside in separate homes within the same school district, then the school district must provide transportation services accommodating both residences. Watts v. Manheim School District, decided August 26, 2015.

A few unanswered questions remain: (1) Must the shared physical custody be exactly 50/50? In this case the custody was exactly 50/50 and so that question was avoided: (2) Father resided 1.9 miles from the nearest bus stop. The PA School Code prohibits a school (that provides free busing) from forcing a student to walk more than 1.5 miles to a bus stop. Would this case apply if Father lived closer than 1.5 miles from the bus stop? Probably not, because a school district can force a child to walk up to 1.5 miles to a bus stop under the PA School Code.

In the Watts case, the school district tried to argue that a student could not have more than one residence under the Pennsylvania school code. The district also argued that even if a student could have more than one residence, the school district had the discretion to limit bus stops to only one residence. Reviewing the PA school code and the case-law, the Supreme Court rejected the school district's arguments and found for the father.

Please note that the 2012 case of Wyland v. West Shore School District, 52 A.3d 572 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012) had previously held that a student whose parents are residents of separate school districts and is subject to a shared physical custody arrangement, can be a resident pupil of the two different school districts and thus entitled to bus service from each school district.

Also, a Pennsylvania school district can refuse to provide bus service to a non-resident location (such as after-school activities or daycare) because those services are not required under the Pennsylvania school code.