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.