Feuds: The Drama Club

If it’s not cell-phone towers in Gladwyne, it’s Ardmore’s makeover. There’s always something roiling the vodka tonics in Lower Merion. Right now, soccer moms are hot under their Tory Burch tunics over which (top-rated) high school their kids will attend

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.

  • Regina

    I found this article to be rife with inaccuracies, which is really disappointing given the usual caliber of Philadelphia Magazine. For instance: 1. Harriton was built in the 1950s to be smaller, and has always since the day it opened been this way – at one point down to 500 students. Ardmore had TWO elementary schools and one junior high all of which were closed and has taken the brunt of all 6 redistricting actions since 1963, more often and more severely than any other community in Lower Merion or Narberth. 2. Neither HS is considered 'large'. 3. Those students in the LMHS walk zone don't 'choose' to walk, there is no bus service. 4. The LMHS walk zone follows the District's 1 mile policy for walkers everywhere BUT in South Ardmore. 5. Clearly, you've never been to Ardmore, where there are (shocking) many rowhouses and many apartments, not just leafy twins and colonials. 6. Every proposal put forward divided LM's ONLY ethnically diverse neighborhood in two parts – half to Ha

  • Regina

    6. Every proposal put forward divided LM's ONLY ethnically diverse neighborhood into two parts – half to Harriton and half to LM, drawing lines right down residential streets. Every proposal detailed racial makeups except 3R. Yet race is claimed to have not been a factor. That's why the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is formally investigating this school district. Maybe, just maybe, the rich lawyers and Soccer Moms have violated their ethnically diverse population's civil and constitutional rights in their eagerness to protect their little dears, did you ever think of that? Lastly, there are only 4 Board seats up for election, the "unified slate" is 2 incumbent R, 1 incumbent D and 1 'new' D. It does not have any party's endorsement as of yet. Your lack of basic research shows your bias Ms. Korman. Sloppy!

  • J

    This article gets a lot of facts wrong, and paints Lower Merion with a broad brush. This article misses that Ardmore and Narberth and LM High School are in the most central, dense, walkable part of the township. The geography is extremely favorable for walking. There's no reason for these towns to be broken up like this except for the greed of wealthier areas who want to shave 6 minutes of their kids' BMW ride to school.

  • M

    Does the author believe that hte plan is not racist/classicist because the area is leafy? I loved when the district says that they displaced white kids too. That is fabulous. Could that be because they ran out of black kids? They wanted equal numbers of minorities at each school. They took all they could, and made up the rest of the numbers with the Narberth kids. You forgot to mention that Narberth is 1/2 mile square and has 3 school feeder patterns. There are 5 schools within 1.5 miles, and some of these kids don't go to ANY of these schools. Some kids walk, and others go to the furthest school at every level. The department of education civil rights division has looked at this, decided there is something wrong here, and is investigating. (see the Inquirer yesterday) Soccer mom's aren't always crazy or wrong.

  • o

    Dear Philadelphia Magazine,I am a little upset. I would like to fight for fair treatment for allstudents and families, But I can't get any of my kids to play soccer.I played through high school – it that close enough? Can I still bea soccer mom? May I please have an opinion?Signed,Leafy Girl

  • Jennifer

    theme at every single board meeting. The District was very proud of the way they engineered it so that half of the black kids would be at each highschool. On the evening that Plan 3R was introduced the slide showing the big diversity break down was left on the screen for the duration of the meeting. It made my stomach turn. Not an evening I will soon forget. Wish you would have tried harder to dig in and find people to talk to and present the whole story.

  • Jennifer

    Shame on you Amy Korman. Did you talk to only a handful of people? Have you ever been to South Ardmore? I'm guessing not as you won't see any Tori Burch (whoever that is!) anywhere. Yes, much or most of Lower Merion is extremely well-off but you are completely missing the point and way off base in how you describe the people of Ardmore and the redistricting process. I'm also not quite sure what soccer moms have to do with anything. Last I looked kids played soccer in every school district. So many things mistated as facts in your article. This isn't news reporting. It's mostly fiction. It's unfortunate you only talked to your friends in Penn Valley who by the way, still get to go to their highschool of choice – Harriton. ONLY the kids in a small pocket of South Ardmore and North Narberth neither get to go to their neighborhood school with their neighbors or have a choice. If you had attended or watched online a single board meeting you also would have seen that "diversity" was a big th

  • Regina

    You may not have noticed, but those people who ended up getting gerrymandered in to BHES 10 years ago still aren't thrilled about it, no matter how much you boast. Nor have I heard anyone begging to go there. What I hear is that when people go to parent events there are clear seating patterns – the Narberth and the BH people sit in their own areas. So, thanks for trying to put some lipstick on the pig. Not working. This has nothing to do with kids being 'fine'. It has to do with basic rights being violated. Of course you don't care unless they're your rights…

  • Regina

    I GREW UP on the Main Line. Until this article I had never even heard of Tory Burch, whom I wrongly guessed was a resident. Thanks to Google today I learned that's a clothing designer. Leave Gladwyne and take a drive Mrs. Korman. Go to church at Mt. Calvary Baptist or St. Colmans instead of St. John Vianney. Eat at John Henry's instead of Nectar. Tell Mr. Korman to go to Jackson's where Vernon Odom gets his hair cut instead of OMG. There is a whole other Main Line out there who doesn't shop at Bergdoff's or Needless Markup. We've been here a long, long time.

  • Kara

    I live in LM in the Belmont Hills section. The article failed to mention another historical fight that took place a while back. When the Belmont Hills school was set to open there was yet another feud over which group of kids would attend. Almost all surrounding neighborhoods did not want their kids coming the Belmont Hills. They felt we were "low class." It became a HUGE issue. Once again there was a lawsuit threatened when the final decision was made. Then something surprising happened. They assigned the BEST school pricipal in the district to Belmont Hills. When everyone found out about that they were trying fight to get their kids INto Belmont Hills. Many were sorry they complained and when they visited the school they saw a state of the art facility.The point I am making is that I agree with the person who wrote the article. People in LM are the most resistant to change that I have ever seen anywhere! Why not just shut the "eff" up and wait and see how things work out. Kids ar

  • J

    Hey get the facts straight. The belmont hills principal was only assigned after the '98 redistricting as a consolation prize to those in Narberth who had to be bused to far. Narberth could walk to any of our 3 local elementaries, or to the nearer middle, and now to the nearer high school but all are taken away. Our attendance area is shaped like a barbell, like old-school gerrymandering. Would Penn wynne like it if they couldn't attend PW school? Would Bala be fine not attending Cynwyd ES? I think not

  • Loraine

    For a perspective on education by folks born and raised in Lower Merion, take a look at the "Main Line Education Monologues: Dreams Deferred or Realized" documentary that's airing on Lower Merion and Narberth's Public Access TV(Check the programming schedule at http://www.lowermerionandnarberth.tv/ for channels Verizon 34 and Comcast 99 for airing times and dates). The folks in that documentary talk about LMSD's historical considerations relative to race and redistricting. For some, it's not all about wealth, leaves, soccer or race–if they can help it. Believe it or not, community and school can go hand in hand–maybe just not in Lower Merion, all the time.

  • Loraine

    "Feuds: The Drama Club" a.k.a. Lower Merionites as Divas. No, I don't take offence to the article's title or its shallow content, but do admit that the author doesn't have her pulse on the community or the issues with her implication that what matters to Lower Merionites is relatively much to do about nothing that matters to your average Joe even if she depicts the area as above it all. Perhaps the article would have hit a home run if the writer spent more time with those who pounded the pavement for the segmented change each group sought during periods 1, 2, 3 and 3R of the redistricting effort–you know "the community." For me, school board member Diana DiBonaventuro expressed the essence of this mess when during her closing arguments on this issue she highlighted that despite hiring a consultant experienced in structuring the redistricting process, which would be based on a sound set of criterion centered on the community's core values, the Board’s eventual decisions were impacted

  • Loraine

    by all the social activism not its original ideals; she voted against 3R. I'm guilty of going with the community-led structure flow of activism as my most immediate, as compared to the larger Lower Merion community, neighborhood was impacted when I campaigned for change to plan 3. Obviously race was always part of the redistricting equation. Superintendent McGinley wouldn’t seem to be able to deny factoring race into the problem even if the Board member interviewed for this article did–particularly when LMSD’s redistricting tables and graphs stipulated otherwise…don't get it twisted. Check your school tax bill…we pay for our schools! Why isn't the community getting what it wants for its money? Of course we should continue activism at the ballot box; the school board elections are on the horizon. For a perspective on education by folks born and raised in Lower Merion, take a look at the "Main Line Education Monologues: Dreams Deferred or Realized" documentary that's airing on Lowe

  • Corey

    Amy Korman has irresponsibly and inaccurately portrayed parents who raised serious concerns about LMSD’s recent redistricting. Painting Lower Merion with one stereotypical brush is just as ill-informed as Superintendent Dr. McGinley’s contention that kids from the former choice zone to Lower Merion could drive to Harriton, as if we all could afford cars for our teenagers. It is (almost) as offensive as President of the School Board Lisa Fair-Pliskin’s invocation of President Obama and “Change” to a group of parents who contend that the School Board’s plan disproportionately harms racial minorities and families of relatively lower socio-economic status. Those with the power of the pen and power of their political position should seek accurate information and grapple with the real issues facing LMSD so they can use their power more responsibly. A place to start would be with the website of newly formed Lower Merion Voices United for Equity in Education (www.lmvue.org) or the testimony of

  • Corey

    of LMSD residents regarding redistricting plans which reference research, statistics, and reasoned arguments rather than empty rhetoric and sarcasm.

  • Kate

    Not to focus again on the leafiness factor, but much of South Ardmore has equivalent tree cover to parts of North Philly. Not a street tree on my street. Those " quaint" houses are just normal for some of us. The author trivializes an important topic. She didn't speak to anyone in South Ardmore, because no on would speak to her because we know how she writes.Don't print such nonsense in the future.

  • susan

    Excuse me, but THEY DON'T WALK OUT HERE,AT ALL!!!!!When I saw that sign I laughed. Go to Center City, that is where you see people walking, FOR REAL!!!