As a parent, you may have experienced the effects of recent public education cuts. As school districts try to “do more with less”, they seek ways to reduce expenditures. For Lancaster County resident, Timothy Watts, these cuts meant a serious problem for his son. Manheim Township School District had previously provided transportation to eligible students to and from “multiple locations,” but in 2011 began to provide transportation to only one location.
For the intact family, this minor change made no difference. For divorced or separated parents, it made all the difference in the world. For Watts, who maintained equal joint custody of his son, it meant struggling to find alternate transportation. The school district named Watts’ ex-wife’s residence as the primary residence and refused bus service to and from Watts home, even though there were empty seats on the bus. For several months, Watts’ only option was to hire someone to drive his son for him. Divorce is overwhelming enough without trying to ensure that you’ve weighed every potential future challenge. Unfortunately, the future of your children is integral in your divorce settlements, especially if you and your spouse are parting badly.
Who Has Responsibility for Educational Decisions?
Many divorcing couples will agree to a joint custody relationship where both parties have equal say in making educational decisions for their children. Historically, school districts are good about ensuring that both parents have a legal right to be informed and involved in their child’s education. It gets complicated when you do not share equal joint custody. If you don’t have primary custody of your child, you could be limited in making decisions about your child’s future. Make sure the wording of your divorce agreement is absolutely clear as to who is responsible for making decisions, who can attend school functions, extracurricular activities, and parent teacher conferences. This will help avoid potential problems with the school district. Who Chooses the School District?
While the law varies from state to state, you have several options for picking school districts. If you have primary custody, this doesn’t mean that you automatically get to choose the school. If you have a specific district in mind, your divorce agreement can specify that your child will attend that school provided that a parent lives in the district. You can also agree that your child will attend school in the district where one of you lives, regardless of the district. This means that your child would have to change districts if you would move. This may become an issue down the road if you cannot agree on the district where your child should attend school. Be sure that your agreement specifies a certain mile radius where you can move or a list of acceptable school districts.
What About Non-Custodial Parents?
Many court cases have focused on fighting over the rights of non-custodial parents in their child’s education. Non-custodial parents may not agree with the educational decisions of the custodial parent, and often they are unable to do anything about it. Often, divorce agreements must state that non-custodial parents have rights to make decisions along with the custodial parents. It is important to note the difference between the right to make decisions and the right to participate in a child’s education. It is normally acceptable – and encouraged – for the non-custodial parent to see records, to attend extra-curricular activities, and to participate in parent-teacher conferences.
There was a happy ending in Timothy Watts’ case. After a long court battle, the courts finally ruled in Watts’ favor saying that if divorced parents share equal custody of a child, a school district can’t choose to provide school bus service to only one of their homes. Watts’ attorney acknowledges that the ruling is fairly narrow since the child has two legal residences and the divorce agreement was settled long before this school district policy changed. Similar cases may not have the same success.
In your divorce, you can’t predict all of the ways your child’s education may be complicated after the divorce is finalized. However, you can reduce many issues by having an airtight divorce settlement and discussing all your options with a divorce attorney.
The members of the Law Offices of Reese, Samley, Wagenseller, Mecum, and Longer practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and collectively have 160 years of experience between them. One of their many areas of practice is Family Law including divorce and child custody.