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Watts v. Manheim Township School District

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

January 7, 2014

Timothy L. Watts
v.
Manheim Township School District, Appellant

Argued: December 11, 2013

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge

OPINION

ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge

Manheim Township School District (School District) appeals from an order of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas (trial court)[1] granting a permanent injunction and directing the School District to resume bussing services for Timothy L. Watts' (Watts) child, C.W., to and from Watts' residence to the Manheim Township Middle School (Middle School) pursuant to Section 1361 of the Public School Code of 1949 (School Code).[2] At issue is whether a resident pupil is entitled to transportation services to and from two different residences within the same school district.

The School District asserts the School Code does not require it to provide transportation to a resident pupil to and from more than one location within the School District, and the trial court misinterpreted and misapplied the School Code, regulations, and applicable Pennsylvania case law in concluding otherwise. Thus, the School District contends the trial court erred in finding that Watts established a clear right to relief under the School Code and was therefore entitled to injunctive relief. Discerning no error, we affirm.

I. Background

The relevant facts are not in dispute, but the factual scenario presents a case of first impression. Watts is the father of C.W., who is a student at the Middle School in the School District. Watts and his ex-wife share equally-divided legal and physical custody of C.W. with C.W. spending alternating weeks with each parent. The custody arrangement is by court order. Both custodial parents reside in the School District but on different bus routes.

Prior to the 2011-2012 school year, the School District provided transportation to eligible students to and from multiple locations, including different residences of divorced and separated parents. During the 2010-2011 school year, the School District transported approximately 400 students to multiple locations. Of that number, 50 to 75 students were subject to joint physical custody agreements. The School District could not determine how many of those students were involved in equally-divided physical custody arrangements. In an attempt to reduce operating expenses, when adopting the 2011-2012 school year budget, the School District's Board of School Directors (Board) approved cost-reduction measures that included eliminating transportation of students to and from multiple locations.

To allow for the transition to the new system, the School District did not strictly enforce the policy in the 2011-2012 school year. During the 2011-2012 school year, C.W. continued to receive transportation to the Middle School from both of his parents' homes. When adopting the 2012-2013 school year budget, the Board decided to further reduce transportation costs by strictly enforcing the policy of eliminating transportation to and from multiple locations. In furtherance of the new policy, the School District informed Watts it would no longer transport C.W. between his home and the Middle School. The School District continued to provide C.W. with transportation to and from his mother's residence. The School District notified Watts that C.W.'s bus stop for the 2012-2013 school year would be the bus stop servicing his ex-wife's residence. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 42a.

The School District has a bus route that serves Watts' neighborhood and provides transportation to and from the Middle School. The bus has unassigned seats and could accommodate C.W. without adding an extra stop. Watts' employment precludes him from driving C.W. to school, and C.W.'s mother's home is approximately two miles away from his residence and would require C.W. to traverse a heavily trafficked highway to reach his approved stop. Watts hired an individual to transport his son to and from school on the weeks that he has custody.

In an attempt to have bussing services to his home restored, Watts contacted the School District administration, appeared before the Board, and wrote a letter to the School District Solicitor, all to no avail. In November 2012, Watts filed a complaint against the School District seeking a writ of mandamus, a declaratory order, and injunctive relief. Additionally, Watts filed a petition for preliminary injunction.

The trial court conducted a hearing. The parties stipulated to the proposed testimony offered by Watts and the School District. Upon consideration of Watts' petition for injunctive relief, verified testimony, and the parties' briefs, the trial court granted Watts' request for a preliminary injunction and directed the School District to resume bussing services for C.W. to and from Watts' residence to the Middle School. Shortly thereafter, the trial court amended this order by granting a permanent injunction.

In reaching this decision, the trial court relied heavily on Wyland v. West Shore School District, 52 A.3d 572 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012), stating:

Under Wyland, a student who is subject to an equally split shared physical custody agreement can be a resident pupil of more than one school district. Based upon the Wyland court's reasoning, it is only logical to conclude that C.W. can maintain two residences within a single district.

Tr. Ct., Slip. Op., 5/8/13, at 7. The trial court emphasized the fact that there is no primary residence as C.W. spends 50 percent of his time residing with each parent pursuant to the joint physical custody arrangement.

The trial court determined the fact that Watts maintains a residence in the School District is sufficient to confer resident pupil status on C.W., and Watts need not demonstrate that his home is C.W.'s primary residence or domicile. Consequently, the trial court determined the School District is statutorily required to provide transportation for C.W. to the Middle School to and from both parents' homes. The trial court limited its holding to:

A situation wherein both parents live in the school district, the student is subject to an equally split joint legal and physical custody agreement, and a bus from the student's school has available seats, already serves both homes and could accommodate the student without any further cost or adding an extra stop.

Id. at 9.

From this decision, the School District appealed to this Court.[3] In addition to the briefs filed by the School District and Watts, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) filed a friend-of-the-court brief regarding the impact of the case on schools across the Commonwealth and supporting the School District's position.

II. Issues

In this appeal, the School District contends the trial court erred in finding the School Code requires the District to provide transportation to a resident pupil to and from more than one location within the School District. According to the School District, the School Code merely requires the School District to provide transportation to a resident pupil, which it is doing. The implementation of the School District's transportation protocol to limit transportation to and from only one location falls within the School District's permitted discretion. The School District argues that the trial court, in determining this protocol exceeded the School District's discretion, misinterpreted and misapplied the School Code, its implementing regulations, and applicable Pennsylvania case law regarding the School District's duty to transport. Notably, the trial court erred by relying on Wyland, which is distinguishable legally and factually from this case. Finally, the School District maintains, the trial court erred in determining Watts has a clear right to relief under the School Code and was therefore entitled to injunctive relief

III. Discussion

A. School Code

First, the School District contends the trial court erred when it interpreted the School Code, regulations, and applicable Pennsylvania case law to impose a requirement upon the School District to provide transportation to resident pupils to and from multiple locations within the School District.

The School District agrees that C.W. is a "resident pupil" of the School District, as that term is used in Section 1361 of the School Code, 24 P.S. ยง13-1361. Pursuant to Section 1361, the School District provided and is continuing to provide C.W. with transportation. In accordance with the new transportation protocol, the School District is now transporting C.W. to and from only one residence -- his mother's. According to the School District, there is no specific legal authority, or affirmative duty or obligation, requiring it to implement its transportation protocol in a manner that requires resident pupils to be transported to and from multiple locations within one school ...


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