LOWER MERION Two years after spending $210 million to rebuild its two high schools and setting off a redistricting battle that nearly made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Lower Merion School District is looking at expanding the schools.
District officials say an unforeseen enrollment spike was behind their new plan to convert space in the administration building next to Lower Merion High School into classrooms.
That could mean some students from Ardmore and other nearby neighborhoods now bused across the township to Harriton High could elect to attend Lower Merion, essentially what their families sued the district for in 2009.
The irony is not lost on those who say the racial-discrimination fight divided the wealthy community and embarrassed one of the top school districts in the state.
"The district spent millions of dollars fighting a commonsense kind of thing, and now they turn it around and will end up with exactly what the plaintiffs were asking for," said James Herbert, an Ardmore resident who is a spokesman for the African American families.
In 2009, the school board came up with a plan to shuffle students of the two high schools, taking many who lived within a 10-minute walk of Lower Merion in Ardmore and busing them five miles to Harriton in Rosemont.
The board said the plan would balance enrollment at the schools, but some parents said the move was racially motivated.
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the plan to reassign nine black students to Harriton did not violate their constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling.
Although the parents lost the case, the district eventually acknowledged that balancing the racial makeup of the two schools was one goal of the redistricting.
Board president Melissa Gilbert called the possible restoration of the choice zone around Lower Merion - about a mile radius - "a happy by-product" of the recent enrollment spike.
"The community that thought they were negatively affected by the redistricting will regain choice," she said.
The space problem stems from an unanticipated rise in enrollment. When Harriton opened in 2009 and Lower Merion a year later, the target capacity was 1,250 students at each.
School officials now say that in a few years the buildings will be overcrowded. Lower Merion has 1,286 students this year. Harriton has 1,190.
"We're experiencing growth that exceeds our capability at the elementary and middle schools," said Patrick Guinnane, the district's director of operations.
This year, the board authorized $25 million to add four classrooms each at Penn Valley and Gladwyne Elementary Schools and 12 classrooms at Welsh Valley Middle School.
According to a 2012 enrollment study, pupil enrollment has increased rapidly in the last five years, growing nearly 13 percent between 2008 and 2012, and is expected to rise 18 percent in the next 10 years.
The study projects 1,628 students at Harriton and 1,574 at Lower Merion in 2021-22.
School spokesman Doug Young said the uptick may be attributed to the 2008 economic downturn, when more students transferred from private schools.
A housing turnover has also brought new families with young children into the township. And because Lower Merion has been able to maintain programs throughout the financial meltdown, "it makes us an even more compelling choice," Young said.
The board is considering several plans for accommodating more students. Options include renovating up to 22 classrooms in the district administration building, which is adjacent to Lower Merion High School, and building a large addition at Harriton.
The cost estimates run from $5 million to $12 million, Young said.
The board will vote on the plan Nov. 18.
Already, residents who live next to Lower Merion have complained about bringing back school choice, saying students walking through their streets will throw trash.
But others say that allowing teenagers who live near Lower Merion to attend their neighborhood school is the most economical and fairest option.
"The way we look at it, the district has been given a gift, a demographic gift, to correct this past injustice," said Herbert, head of the psychology department at Drexel University. "Everyone is hopeful the district will restore the choice zone and allow people to walk to their neighborhood school irrespective of their race."
A 2012 school district enrollment study projects these numbers for the high schools:
Year Harriton High Lower Merion High
2011-12 1,086 1,260
2012-13 1,189 1,281
2013-14 1,190 1,286
2014-15 1,216 1,324
2015-16 1,262 1,415
2016-17 1,303 1,425
2017-18 1,367 1,462
2018-19 1,459 1,467
2019-20 1,552 1,476
2020-21 1,606 1,542
2021-22 1,628 1,574