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Update to “Another One Rides The Bus”

Back in a prior blog article, we wrote about a recent local court decision obtained by our office on behalf of a client enjoining the Manheim Township School District from refusing to bus a Middle School student from both his mother’s and his father’s homes in a situation where both parents live in the district, both have shared legal and equal physical custody, where the bus has available seats and already serves both homes and could accommodate the student without any further costs or adding an extra stop.

Very recently, on January 7th of this year, the Commonwealth Court (an intermediate appellant court in Pennsylvania) in a matter that they deemed “a case of first impression”, the decision of local Judge Jeffrey D. Wright was affirmed, permanently enjoining the Manheim Township School District from refusing to bus the student from both parents’ homes.

The case has state-wide implications.

School districts attempt to find proper ways to reduce operating expenses by cost reduction measures that include eliminating transportation of students in certain situations.

Prior to the 2011/2012 school year, Manheim Township School District provided transportation to eligible students to and from “multiple locations”, including different residences of divorced and separated parents. During that school year, the school district estimated that it transported approximately 400 students to these “multiple locations”. Of that number, 50-75 students were subject to joint physical custody agreements of one sort or another. Joint physical custody agreements can cover a very wide range, including weekends with one parent to an equal physical custody arrangement. The Manheim Township School District could not determine how many of those 50-75 students were involved in equally divided physical custody arrangements. But in an attempt to reduce operating expenses when adopting the 2011/2012 school year budget, the school district’s board of directors approved the cost reduction measure that included eliminating transportation to students to and from multiple locations. Included within that cost reduction measure was eliminating transportation for students who lived with two parents with equal split custody.

In the first year of the policy, the school district did not strictly enforce the new system and continued to provide transportation in some instances. However, when adopting the 2012/2013 school year budget according to the court, the board decided to further reduce transportation costs by strictly enforcing the policy of eliminating transportation to and from “multiple locations”. As a result, the district refused to allow a middle school student to get on the bus in his father’s neighborhood to ride to school even though there was a seat on the bus and it required no additional stop. The school district’s position was that it was compliant with the law by providing the transportation to and from the mother’s residence only. Essentially, it was up to dad to get the child to the mother’s home two miles away in order to ride the bus to school each morning.

The Commonwealth Court decided that Judge Wright had appropriately enjoined the school district from continuing the policy as it related to these circumstances.

Interestingly, the Commonwealth Court concluded by saying:

“We agree with the school district that the failure of parents (or the attorneys that represent them) to include considerations of school transportation in custody arrangements can lead to complications for taxpayer supported schools. When separated parents fail to consider school transportation, they may also invite unwanted litigation and expense”.

Interestingly in this case, the custody arrangement predated a change in the school policy by years. In other words, long before Manheim Township decided to change its policy concerning transportation to school, the parties had been ordered by the court to equally share physical custody. Consequently, it wasn’t the parties fault for not providing for school transportation in their custody arrangements because the equally split custody arrangements were imposed by court order after a hearing. In addition, there would have been absolutely no reason for even the court to have considered any provision in its order concerning school transportation because it simply was not an issue. At that time, no one would have predicted that the school district would impose a policy that would refuse to transport a child to school from two equal residences.

Divorcing parents have enough issues to deal with than to be expected to predict imaginary policies which could be adopted years away and litigate over fanciful possibilities. However now, in view of this decision, a parent who has just less than equal physical custody of their child may find that they have the full burden of providing transportation to and from school when they do have custody.