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Lower Merion apartment boom brings more students, and costly school building plans

Lower Merion Township property owners have been socked with school-tax hikes totaling 53.3 percent over the last decade, as student enrollment surged and not one, but two palatial, $100 million high schools were built.

Lower Merion Township property owners have been socked with school-tax hikes totaling 53.3 percent over the last decade, as student enrollment surged and not one, but two palatial, $100 million high schools were built.

They should brace themselves for round two.

Lower Merion already is the fastest-growing district in Philadelphia's suburbs and the fourth-fastest in the state. Enrollment is expected to continue rising, and so substantially that the school district is looking at pricey building renovations and expansions - including at one of those high schools - as well as the hiring of 52 teachers at a cost of $6.3 million, and maybe a new middle school.

Basing projections on a pair of demographic studies released last week, administrators say the student population will peak in the 2020-21 school year at about 9,200 - 900 more than today, and not far from the all-time baby-boomer high reached around 1970.

"That's a significant number of students for a district that's pretty well built-out," Superintendent Robert Copeland said.

Built-out, but still continuing to build.

Realtor Daniel Marein-Efron doesn't need a demographic study to know that more young children are flooding in.

"I've seen four transactions - older couples, in their 60s at most - leave, and families with three kids move in, within a block of me," said Marein-Efron, of Wynnewood.

A boom in the construction of upscale apartment and condo units in the township during the 2010s is a key reason for the turnover, he said, as growing young families replace downsizing empty nesters in single homes.

The Lower Merion school board is weighing how to accommodate 10 more years of growth. Yet even as administrators in the highly ranked district mull expansion plans, they must grapple with a property-tax revolt led by Gladwyne lawyer Arthur Wolk.

Earlier this year, Wolk won the first round of a lawsuit seeking to rescind a 4.4 percent school-tax hike, based on his argument that the district is hiding large surpluses. The district has appealed the Montgomery County Court ruling to Commonwealth Court.

'Harder and harder'

Now, with the release of the enrollment projections, Wolk is charging that Lower Merion is pumping up the numbers in order to justify more tax increases and unnecessary capital spending.

"The part they're not taking into consideration, if you talk to Realtors, is that it's becoming harder and harder for a young couple with kids to buy a house in Lower Merion because of the school taxes," he said.

There's no argument that enrollment has grown significantly, up by 21 percent since 2006. Copeland said the bubble has been felt largely in elementary schools, but the classroom crunch is spreading upward.

In recent years, the district has expanded classrooms at three elementary schools and both middle schools, and converted space in its administration building into laboratories for adjacent Lower Merion High School. Now, it wants to add laboratories to Harriton High School, too.

Lower Merion's growing pains are at least partly related to the uptrend in new apartment and condo complexes, squeezed into undeveloped pockets of the township. From the traffic-choked Montgomery Avenue corridor to the banks of the Schuylkill, nearly 1,800 units are expected to be added over the next five years.

Scott France, a demographer for the Montgomery County Planning Commission, which prepared one of the studies for the district, said enrollment gains from apartments have mostly been from existing rather than new units, from 242 students in 2006 to 574 this year. He speculated that younger families eager to enroll their children in Lower Merion schools have been willing to begin their family life in apartments.

'The real issue'

Some say the rise in Lower Merion of new, expensive apartments for empty nesters is changing the nature of the township's turnover.

Demographics aren't the only factor fueling enrollment growth. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2008-09, fewer parents opted to send their children to high-tuition private schools. From 2000 to 2010 in Lower Merion, private-school attendance dropped from 38 percent to 32 percent, sending hundreds of new students into public classrooms.

Whatever the cause, pressure from higher enrollment has brought new tension to a district that, despite its wealth, has seen more than its share of contretemps.

"The real issue in the township is the school board and Board of Commissioners each operates in their own little universe," said Anthony Lame, head of the Wynnewood Civic Association and a 40-year resident.

The township is eager to approve new development, anticipating higher tax revenues, but doesn't fully weigh the costly impact on schools, Lame said.

As for the ongoing school-tax case, Wolk said he believes district officials are in a bind because his antitax crusade has limited their options. He noted that a recent bond filing predicted much lower enrollment numbers.

"The problem for them is they don't want to have to ask the taxpayers for a tax increase because they won't get it, and they will never get a new school," he wrote in an email. "One extra child in some classrooms solves the problem. No new school, no new teachers, no new administrators."

However, Robin Vann Lynch, school board president, said small class size remains a top priority.

"Lower Merion is a great place to live," she added. "I don't fault anybody for wanting to be part of the community."