Shared Custody Arrangements and Choice of School District

| Jan 28, 2015 | Child Custody, Divorce |

The issue before the Superior Court in Ames v. Town of Wayland, was to determine whether a town could refuse to enroll a child of a divorced resident in its public school solely on the ground that on most school nights the child slept at his mother’s home in another community pursuant to the terms of a joint custody agreement.

The town argued that because the boy slept seven out of ten nights at his mother’s home in Framingham, he did not “actually reside” in Wayland for purposes of G.L. c. 76, §5, the state’s residency law governing public school enrollment.  In implementing the statute, the town’s school district adopted a guideline requiring a student reside in Wayland for at least three out of five weekly school nights.

In this case, the child was due to begin the eighth grade. The child attended Wayland public schools until the fourth grade when, in order to accomodate issues related to a dyslexic learning style, he transferred to a private school with facilities in both Lincoln and Waltham.

In order to bolster the case, the plaintiff father retained an education expert to evaluate the best academic setting for his son.  Both the parenting coordinator in the divorce case and the education expert recommended that it would be in the best interests of the child to return to the Wayland school district

Deciding that Wayland could not rely on its so-called “pillow count” rule in making a residency determination for a child subject to a shared custody arrangement, Judge Wilkins granted the plaintiff father’s request for a preliminary injunction requiring the town to enroll the child for the 2014-2015 school year.

In his opinion, Judge Wilkins wrote that the cases under this statute “may suggest a more searching inquiry into a number of factors, including both the frequency of actual presence in one town or the other (e.g. pillow count) and the principal location of the child’s domestic, social and civic life.

Judge Wilkins concluded that “the town’s pillow count policy fails to allow consideration of the child’s educational history and potential for re-establishing some continuity for a child with learning disabilities who re-enters the mainstream in his town.”  

A trial on the merits is scheduled to be heard in order to have final order in place before the 2015-2016 school year.

Most school districts use guidelines similar to Wayland’s pillow count in making residency determinations.  Thus, the final decision will impact separated and divorced parents with shared custody arrangements.

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