Where a child has two residences within a school district due to a shared custody arrangement, the district must provide transportation to both residences, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in Watts v. Manheim Twp. Sch. Dist., __ A.3d __ (No. 112 MAP 2014, filed August 26, 2015). C.W. (Child) attends public middle school in the Manheim Township School District. Child’s Father and Mother both reside in the District and share legal and physical custody. As part of cost-cutting measures, the District changed its transportation policy for the 2010-2011 school year to eliminate transportation to and from more than one location per student. The District notified Father that, although there was an available seat on a bus that stopped near Father’s home, the District would only transport Child to and from Mother’s residence because hers was the default address on Child’s school registration. Father sought an injunction requiring the District to continue providing transportation to and from both residences. The trial court granted the injunction but limited its ruling to the facts of this case. The District appealed, and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. See Watts v. Manheim Twp. Sch. Dist., 84 A.3d 378 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014).
On the District’s appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion authored by Justice Baer. Based on its construction of the relevant provisions of the Public School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. §§1-101 – 27-2702, the Court concluded that when a school district elects to provide transportation to “resident pupils,” it must do so to and from the student’s residence. In this case, Child has two residences by virtue of his parents’ equally shared physical custody. Because the purpose of school-provided transportation is to facilitate compulsory attendance, the Court held that the legislature intended for the District to provide transportation to both residences to further that goal. For these reasons, the Court affirmed the grant of permanent injunctive relief in favor of Father.
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Saylor emphasized that the School Code promotes school attendance but also gives school districts significant leeway in achieving that goal. If transporting students becomes prohibitively expensive, districts may discontinue the service, curtail other programs or raise taxes. Thus, Chief Justice Saylor opined that the legislature should provide guidance on balancing the broader policy considerations in this area. Chief Justice Saylor joined in the majority’s holding because there was an open seat for Child on a bus to and from Father’s home, thereby eliminating any concern about adding to the District’s financial or administrative burden.
Justice Stevens dissented. He criticized the majority for imposing a newly created duty upon school districts to offer free transportation to and from multiple locations. Because such a policy will affect all Pennsylvania school districts and taxpayers, Justice Stevens believes more specific legislative direction is necessary. Justice Stevens also disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the relevant School Code provisions, positing that if parents residing in different school districts must choose one for enrollment purposes, so too must parents residing in different residences within the same district.