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Lower Merion busing imbroglio

Philadelphia Inquirer
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

By Thomas Hylton

Like Bear Stearns, the Lower Merion School District proves once again that being wealthy and well-educated doesn’t protect you from making foolish decisions.

Next fall, Lower Merion will require students who live in sections of Ardmore, Narberth, and Penn Valley -- within easy walking distance of Lower Merion High School -- to be bused instead to Harriton High School, at the far end of the township.  Residents are hopping mad, and with good reason. 

The redistricting plan splits neighborhoods in two, makes it more difficult for parents to participate in school activities, adds to traffic congestion, wastes energy, and promotes childhood obesity by substituting busing for walking.  Moreover, a disproportionate number of Lower Merion’s small minority population will be bused away from their neighborhoods to provide more diversity at Harriton. 

Lower Merion’s predicament is entirely of its own making – a result of its fixation on making its two high schools the same size.  At present, Lower Merion High School, the older school, is nearly twice as large as Harriton.  That makes sense, because Lower Merion High School is located in the densely populated eastern section of the township, where 70 percent of the residents live.  Harriton High School was built in 1958 to serve a smaller, newer portion of the township, which was designed for driving, not walking.  For similar reasons, school districts like Allentown, Bethlehem and Scranton have two high schools of substantially different sizes.

Had Lower Merion simply renovated its two high schools, all would have been well.  But two years ago, the school board voted to demolish both schools and build new ones on the same sites, costing more than $100 million each, “to be the best district in the state.”  The school board reasoned that to make the schools equal in quality, they had to be equal in size.  That meant increasing Harriton’s enrollment by taking away students from Lower Merion – and the closest available students were those who live within walking distance of Lower Merion.

Although the new schools are designed to be state-of-the-art “green” buildings, the scheme is anything but.  A key principle of green building design is to renovate, rather than replace, existing structures.  Another is to place buildings as close as possible to the people who use them.  Another is to make buildings no larger than necessary.  Lower Merion’s plan flouts all three.  Both high schools will be enormous, with about 60 percent more space per student than the average American high school.

Unfortunately, the “bigger-and-newer-is-better” mentality afflicts school districts throughout the Commonwealth.  During the last 50 years, hundreds of walkable neighborhood schools have been closed, usually to be replaced with large consolidated schools to which students must be bused.  Today, more than 75 percent of Pennsylvania public school students are bused, at an annual cost exceeding $1 billion, half of it subsidized by the state.

We can no longer afford such behavior, either economically or environmentally.  The current financial crisis stems from unsustainable levels of borrowing.  The next crisis – global warming – stems from unsustainable levels of air pollution.  Both can be mitigated by fostering pedestrian communities that make more efficient use of space, both indoors and outdoors.  Walkable schools are an integral part of that ideal. 

Two years ago, I edited and published a brochure, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and sent to all 501 school districts, to promote neighborhood schools.   The brochure, called “Renovate or Replace,” contains essays from Gov. Rendell’s top cabinet officers, arguing that neighborhood schools can help sustain older communities, protect the environment, reduce transportation costs, and cultivate healthy habits by encouraging walking.

Perhaps the Department of Education needs to go beyond exhortation.  Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak has broad authority over local school matters, and he has used it forcefully in the past.  He can – and should -- call a hearing to examine all the pertinent facts in Lower Merion and make a recommendation to the school board.

The issue goes far beyond one school district.  Will Pennsylvania champion sustainable communities, or not?







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