David J. Mongillo, Esq., email@example.com, (412) 594-5598
G.W. v. Avonworth Sch. Dist., 297 A.3d 28 (Pa. Commw. Ct. June 2, 2023). The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court confirmed, among other evidentiary issues, that when challenging the residence of an enrolled student a school district has the burden to prove the student resides outside the district. In the absence of compelling evidence, the student will remain enrolled, even if the family has produced limited or no evidence the student resides within the district.
A community member notified Avonworth School District (“District”) a District student (“Student”) lived with his mother (“Mother”), outside of District boundaries. Student was enrolled in the District based on the father’s (“Father”) address, located within the District. The District contracted with a private investigator to conduct surveillance of the Mother’s home. On seven mornings between October 15, 2021 and November 10, 2021, Student was observed leaving Mother’s home in the morning and riding to school in Mother’s vehicle. The District notified Father that Student was not a District resident and therefore was not entitled to enrollment within the District. Father requested a hearing before the Board of Directors of the District. At the hearing the District presented the evidence gathered by the private investigator, along with testimony from the District Superintendent who heard Student’s Mother say Student was “staying with her” outside the District.
At the hearing before the Board of Directors, the Father testified Student splits time between the Father and Mother’s home, and that when Student stays with him, the Father drops Student at the Mother’s home early each morning on Father’s way to work. Father explained the school counselor suggested Student should not be left alone due to his self-destructive behaviors, and so the Father drops Student off instead of leaving Student alone at Father’s residence.
After the hearing, the District’s Board of Directors held Student was not a District resident, and the District was not obligated to provide a free public education. Father appealed this determination to the Court of Common Pleas, which held the District had not proved the Student lived outside of the District a majority of the time. The District then appealed the trial court’s order to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which upheld the trial court’s decision.
The Pennsylvania Public School Code states, “A child shall be considered a resident of the school district in which his parents or the guardian of his person resides.” 24 P.S. § 13-1302(a). Regulations of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (“PDE”) offer guidance when a student’s parents reside in different school districts:
[t]he child may attend school in the district of residence of the parent with whom the child lives for a majority of the time, unless a court order or court approved custody agreement specifies otherwise. If the parents have joint custody and time is evenly divided, the parents may choose which of the two school districts the child will enroll for the school year. 22 Pa. Code § 11.11(a).
The District first argued the Student had the burden to prove he resided within the District according to the following guidance from PDE: “The school district or charter school has no obligation to enroll a child until the parent, guardian, or other person having control or charge of the student making the application has supplied proof of the child’s age, residence, and immunizations as required by law.” 22 Pa. Code § 11.11(b)(emphasis added).
The Commonwealth Court rejected the District’s argument explaining Section 11.11(b) requires parents to provide proof of residency upon their initial application for enrollment within the District. However, the school district has the burden of proof when it challenges a student’s residency after initially accepting the student’s application for enrollment. The Court explained, “The School District could have declined to enroll Student if his residency was unclear at that time. When the School District thereafter challenged Student’s residency, the School District had the burden to show that Student was no longer a School District resident.”
The Commonwealth Court also addressed testimony from the District Superintendent regarding statements by the Mother that the Student lived with her. The Court held this was inadmissible hearsay testimony because the Mother was not called to testify before the District Board of Directors. The Court explained in administrative hearings, such as the hearing before the Board, hearsay evidence will be allowed “if it is corroborated by any competent evidence in the record.” However, the Court held the private investigator’s surveillance evidence did not corroborate the Mother’s alleged statement because the Father explained why the Student was at the Mother’s address on the dates in question. Therefore, the Court explained the superintendent’s testimony was impermissible hearsay.
The Court upheld the trial court’s decision and explained the District’s surveillance evidence was not sufficient to prove the Student resided outside the District, given the Father’s explanation that he drove the Student to the Mother’s home on the days the surveillance evidence was gathered.
In challenging an enrolled student’s residency, the school district has the burden to prove the student lives outside district boundaries. Therefore, districts should work with their legal counsel to ensure they are gathering sufficient evidence in the event of an appeal by the family.
For more information, contact David Mongillo at (412) 594-5598 or click here for more information about David.
November 08, 2023
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