NATURALLY, THERE WERE signs that heralded the great 2009 school redistricting battle in Lower Merion Township — literally, red-and-white signs planted along front yards in Narberth and Ardmore, protesting the fact that kids who had traditionally been able to walk to Lower Merion High School would now be sent by bus to Harriton High School, out in Bryn Mawr. Lower Merion is huge on signs — where other neighborhoods fly flags with Labrador retrievers on them, or put up plaques that say, “Happiness grows in a garden,” in L.M., the message is usually more along the lines of “No cell-phone towers here!”
The latest L.M. signage was part of a complicated battle that played out over the past year as Lower Merion’s school board tried to equalize enrollment at its two high schools, Harriton and Lower Merion — which meant redistricting the township, renovating the two schools, and sending more children to the traditionally smaller Harriton. In mid-January the battle was won — and lost, depending on which Lower Merionite you ask — at a contentious school board meeting that generated much drama: residents storming out of the meeting; subsequent censoring of the video of the meeting posted on the district website; accusations of discrimination flung between neighbors; school board members giving the silent treatment to other school board members.
But then, Lower Merion is always fighting about one thing or another. One of the first sign wars was the quintessentially Lower Merionesque battle over the Barnes Foundation, which dragged on for a decade. You remember: In the mid-1990s, the Barnes’s Merion neighbors became irate that the few art-lovers allowed to visit the quirky mansion were parking up and down Latches Lane and on Old Lancaster Road. Then when the Barnes proposed building a new parking lot to alleviate the problem, township commissioners balked, saying that the art collection was always meant to be small and sparsely visited. Finally, when the Barnes was able to gather funds to relocate downtown, Lower Merion went up in arms, with the same residents who’d griped about the parking displaying signs that proclaimed, “The Barnes Belongs in Merion.” It was like a Pam Anderson-Tommy Lee breakup: Merionites didn’t want the attendant problems of having the Barnes, but they didn’t want it to leave.
That’s Lower Merion for you, the heart of the Main Line, a place loaded with smart, successful entrepreneurs, doctors and, yes, lawyers. It’s a heady hive of intelligence and wealth that’s bound to produce conflict as readily as bees churn out honey. L.M.’s current battle is a particularly thorny one, though, because it involves the school district, which means it involves all those lawyers’ children. This one may go down as the most painful L.M. battle since the Revolutionary War.
“We bought this house because we wanted to be Harriton,” says one Penn Valley mom, explaining why things have gotten so heated. “It was a rite of passage. All our friends chose their houses for the school they wanted.
“I have young kids,” she adds, “and you go to Sally’s Music Circle and Har Zion [preschool], and you look for the kids who are going to be your kids’ friends, and not knowing [which school] those kids are going to be at is weird. We’re all such control freaks, and not knowing is really hard.”
Schools are an amazingly touchy issue for any parent, and understandably so. But somehow, it seems that in Lower Merion, the issue’s even touchier. “It’s not just Lower Merion,” argues one school board source, who points to some of the region’s debilitating teachers’ strikes in recent years, and insists that all schools and parents, public or private, argue over one thing or another. That’s true, but you can’t help thinking: the Gladwyne cell-phone tower debacle in 2006, when neighbors despaired about a tower on Conshohocken State Road (despite endless complaining about dropped calls)? That was in Lower Merion. The fight over Ardmore’s downtown makeover? Lower Merion. Then there was the super-stink raised when Gladwyne Lunch, the snack shack across from the Guard House, lost its lease a few years ago and had to move 100 feet across the road to another shack (all in L.M., of course). There was blogging, there were tears, and there was a dead squirrel stuffed into a landlord’s mailbox. And that was about a luncheonette.
IN LOWER MERION, most everyone lives a charmed life. It’s beautiful, really, a leafy township full of history, pretty homes, upscale stores and lovely people. Anyone would count himself lucky to live there. (Having lived there myself until a few years ago, I can testify to its delightfulness.) But apparently, having kids in Lower Merion public schools can plunge one into a maze of snobbery, reverse snobbery and relative degrees of wealth. (The private schools are a whole other labyrinth.) Since being in a top-ranked school district (Harriton’s average total SAT score is 1752; Lower Merion High School’s is 1753) seems so great from the outside, it’s puzzling, if you and your kids aren’t in that cauldron, to understand how one figures out whether one’s kids are the Harriton type or the LMHS type. But then again, this is a place where literally everyone in the township — you know it’s true — is either a Hymie’s person or a Murray’s person. There is no gray area for lox here, much less for schools, where reputations have long since been set: Harriton is known as a haven for the rich, while LMHS’s students are more typical Main Line kids.
“I have a friend whose son is at Belmont Hills Elementary,” says the Penn Valley mom who bought her house so her two young kids would go to Harriton, as their father did. She says that Lower Merionites have deeply held beliefs about which school will be a better fit for their kid. While she admits that Narberth parents might want their kids to be able to walk to LMHS — one of the main objections that residents of South Ardmore and Narberth have raised about being redistricted to Harriton is that they’ll have to be bused — her take is different. “If Gladwyne is the richest zip code in the country, you might not want your kids with those [Harriton] kids” who drive Lexuses, she explains. Conversely, she says, “There’s a lot to this debate, and there’s some prejudices in there. I know the one theme that’s huge to this is the people who are putting their children in the sheltered environment where no one is too far below them.”
It’s fair to guess that Lower Merion’s school board members weren’t thinking about the massive social intrigue they would unleash when they moved forward in 2004 with plans to reconstruct their two aging high schools. Perhaps naively, they thought improving the schools’ physical plants would be a good thing. They also decided that since studies show children in smaller school settings learn better, this would be a prime opportunity to balance the sizes of the two high schools. The eastern half of Lower Merion, which includes the quaint colonials and twin homes of Ardmore, Narberth, Merion and Bala, is much more densely populated than the streets of super-upscale Bryn Mawr and Gladwyne. So Harriton High, situated about four miles from Lower Merion High School in a bucolic spot in Bryn Mawr, drew mainly from its surrounding few miles of mansions and stone farmhouses. Since the 1970s, it has been smaller than LMHS in Ardmore, which is within walking distance for many students. (Most years, Harriton has had about 900 students and Lower Merion High School about 1,500.) LMHS has traditionally had a much stronger sports program, though Harriton has a much larger campus. In many parts of the township, including Ardmore and Narberth, students had a choice — they could pick either school.
Residents who live near LMHS — and who crowded school board meetings over the winter to literally scream till they were teary and blue in the face about their distaste for having their kids sent to Harriton — maintain that the debate wasn’t about what kinds of SUVs the kids at school drive; it was about convenience. And it does seem unfair: Working parents were counting on their kids being able to walk to school and get themselves home easily after classes or sports, and assumed their kids would go to high school with friends from the neighborhood.
Over the past year, four different plans have been presented, to various degrees of hue and cry. While the details of the plans are nearly incomprehensible unless you stand over a map with a magnifying glass and a cartographer, it all boils down to this: Plan 1 was to send part of Ardmore, Penn Valley, and Penn Wynne (a Wynnewood neighborhood) to Harriton. Parents objected, loudly, so revisions were made, resulting in Plan 2, which sent part of Merion, part of Penn Wynne and all of Narberth to Harriton. This seemed workable, because the Narberth kids, who currently attend two different elementary schools, would all be together for high school, as would most Merion kids. But the Penn Wynners and Merionites cried foul again.
Plan 3 shrank the historic walking zone around Lower Merion High School — most Ardmore kids have always had the choice to walk there — but when that also got shot down by parents, Plan 3R (3, revised) was the last proposal. 3R gave Bala, Penn Wynne and Merion their choice of high schools, and kept a larger walking zone around LMHS in place. But much of South Ardmore and much of Narberth were now sent to Harriton, full stop, no choice. And with this, the board dug in its heels — there would be no more revisions.
The last school board meeting was filled with Narberth and Ardmore residents who were allotted one minute each to speak to the board. Speeches got heated, including one by South Ardmore parent Aaron Williams, who stormed out of the meeting. “We are a working-class neighborhood, and I feel the board looks at us as we’re the path of least resistance,” Williams complained, and his speech was actually edited out of video of the school board meeting posted on the L.M. district website — but was restored when this editing raised still more protest.
“It seems like the school board listened to Merion and Penn Wynne screaming,” says another Penn Valley mom (Penn Valley Mom #2, we’ll call her), who says that people in her neighborhood “hate each other” over the plans, and are intensely jealous of the families that can still walk to Lower Merion High School. “The people who got the choice to walk seem to be wealthier,” she says. Indeed, it must be particularly galling for Ardmore families who live close to LMHS to find out they must now take a bus to Harriton. Some parents even raised the question of race, since South Ardmore is known as the most racially diverse area of the Main Line. Doubtless racism wasn’t the motive of the school board, but since Narberth and Ardmore are the least pricey real estate in L.M., it does, at the least, seem like only the less wealthy in the township got the redistricting deal that they most definitely and vociferously didn’t want. “It was not racist,” insists a school board source. “It displaced white kids, too.”
Plan 3R was passed on January 12th, amid much drama and wrath of soccer moms. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, in the meantime, expressed interest in suing the school district on behalf of the redistricted African-American students. Clearly, the board was faced with an impossible situation. You do have to wonder, though, if dividing Ardmore and Narberth was the best idea, as those areas have already felt slighted for decades: Back in the 1960s, Ardmore had its own elementary school, as did Narberth. Children could blithely walk to those schools without ever boarding a bus. Then the schools were closed for budget reasons, as was a onetime junior high in Ardmore, also within walking distance of many Ardmorians.
As of the January 12th meeting, parents are mad; Ardmore feels estranged; and some of the school board members are barely speaking to each other. And it appears only lawsuits can change the course of action now. The board, for its part, has mostly gone silent on the issue, perhaps wondering if it should have let Harriton just stay small.
SO FAR, NO dead squirrels have appeared in the redistricting battle, but you just know Lower Merion isn’t done with the issue yet. It’s not that kind of place: People in L.M. might forgive, but they don’t forget. Many of the Ardmore makeover protesters back in 2005 never actually shopped at the stores they bemoaned losing, but they still protested.
“I think the more educated you are, the more you’re used to getting what you want,” points out Joe Manko, an environmental attorney and former Lower Merion township commissioner who was involved in the Ardmore development. “I would say people are more argumentative and polarized than they used to be.” Indeed, already new buzz is being raised about a “unified slate” proposal for the upcoming school board primary in May that would have four pro-redistricting Democratic and Republican candidates running together as a sort of package deal, leaving only one board seat open to a candidate from Narberth or South Ardmore, neither of which currently has representation on the board.
More drama is insured with the election, and it can only be a matter of time till there’s talk of K-12 charter schools for Narberth and Ardmore. Sure, parents would be passing on the chance for their kids to attend the best public high schools in the state, but they’d be able to run the schools their way, and keep their communities intact. In fact, it’s hard to believe granola-ish Narberth hasn’t done this already. One can imagine a vegan cafeteria, meditation circles, and knitting classes in a bully-free, peanut-free model of education. (And, of course, everyone would walk there.) Take that, Lower Merion!
As for Penn Valley Mom #2, after months of angst, she’s trying to move on. “They’re both state-of-the-art, million-dollar high schools,” she says of Harriton and LMHS. “Even at my kid’s elementary school, I hear people say, ‘I want my kids to go to Harriton, I want them with the cream of the Main Line.’ Others say, ‘I want my kid to go to LMHS and be more down-to-earth.’ They’re all crazy,” she says simply. “All the schools are good.” At least, though, life in Lower Merion is never boring — there’s the beauty, the leafiness, the convenience, and the always impassioned people. For better and for worse.