Shared Custody Presents Special Issues
March 3, 2014
Pennsylvania Court Rules that Schools Must Provide Transportation to Homes of Both Parents
When separated or divorced parents enter into a child custody arrangement, numerous issues may be addressed. The terms of a particular arrangement may dictate which parent’s home is the child’s primary residence. This designation may impact other issues. A matter that often can get overlooked is the school transportation for children living within the agreed-upon arrangement. Until recently the designation of one home as primary, even in cases of shared custody, could lead to issues regarding parent’s rights to receive transportation to school for their children. This could create unwanted litigation and expense, as exemplified in the recent case of Watts v. Manheim Township School District, No. 935 C.D. 2013.
In the Watts case, a father (Watts) and his ex-wife shared equally-divided legal and physical custody of their child, C.W., who spent alternating weeks with each parent. Both parents resided within Manheim Township School District, where C.W. attended middle school, but their homes were located on different school bus routes. In accordance with a new district policy aimed at reducing expenses, the school informed Watts that, while it would continue to provide transportation for C.W. to and from his mother’s house, it would no longer transport C.W. between Watts’s home and the middle school. Despite the fact that a bus with unassigned seats could accommodate C.W. without adding an extra stop, Watts had to hire someone to transport C.W. to and from school when CW was living with in the custody of his father.
The father, in an attempt to have the bussing services to his home restored, contacted the school and eventually filed a petition with the court. The case reached the Commonwealth Court and the central issue was whether a student is entitled to transportation services to and from two different residences within the same school district. The school district argued that the Public School Code, dealing with school transportation, required merely that the district provide transportation to a resident pupil, which the district said it had done. Watts, conversely, asserted that the School Code required the school to transport a student to and from that student’s legal residence and, if the student had two legal residences, the school had to provide transportation to both. Moreover, because the Commonwealth Court had recently recognized that a student in an equally-split shared custody can have two legal residences, Watts contended that the school district’s refusal to transport to both residences violated the Code.
The Commonwealth Court agreed with the father, finding that the school district had a duty to provide transportation accommodating both of C.W.’s legal residences. Thus, in situations where both parents live in the school district, the student is subject to equally-divided legal and physical custody, and a bus has available seats and could accommodate the student with no added stop nor expense, the district was required to provide transportation between both parents’ homes.
Generally speaking, parents in shared-custody arrangements must determine not only how to arrange for transportation from parent to parent, but also how children will be transported between each home and school. Although the Watts case provides for a favorable result where parents have equally-divided custody, the situation can become more problematic when parents do not have equally-divided custody. Where custody is not equal (and the child has just one primary residence), the school may be obligated to provide transportation only to and from the home of the child’s primary residence. This would leave the other parent without a clear way to transport the child to and from school during their custodial period.
The Watts case dealt with just one of the complications that can arise in the area of school transportation, but school transportation issues have important, real-life implications for many shared-custody families. Many parents reading this may be facing a similar issue, while others may be able to account for this now in order to avoid having to deal with such a problem in the future. Although the foremost concern in such matters always must be the best interests of the child, each parent must consider how to meet these needs while also accounting for their own time and budgetary concerns. Going forward, parents would be wise to try and reach a solution that works for each of them. Considering school transportation issues and being able to spot problems before they arise should be helpful when drafting a custody agreements
Consult with your attorney about other issues to consider when working out custody arrangements.