Parents, students and Lower Merion taxpayers, upset over a proposal to bus students to one Lower Merion Township high school when they live within walking distance of the other, gave school officials an earful last night.

Three hundred people, many carrying homemade signs, attended a meeting at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore. Of the 127 who registered to speak, most adamantly denounced a redistricting plan under consideration by the school district's board of directors that would force certain students to take a bus to Harriton High, though they could easily walk to Lower Merion High.

Jonathan Cohen, 13, an eighth grader at Welsh Valley Middle School, told the board that he lives less than a mile from Lower Merion High and would like to walk there, although he is in the group being assigned to Harriton next year.

"I think that walking will make it easier for me to get to school in the morning, and it is better for the environment," he said.

Gigi Tevlin-Moffat, whose child attends Belmont Hills Elementary School and would as a high schooler be bused to Harriton, was one of five parents who represented Narberth.

"Busing Narberth does not minimize bus times and does not respect our number-one value - walkability," she said.

Steven Lewis, a social worker who lives in Ardmore, said he was there to represent the Ardmore community. He accused the district of improperly targeting one minority group - the students of primarily black South Ardmore - to achieve racial diversity at Harriton.

"While this plan does not assign individual students to achieve racial balance, it is assigning a geographical group of students because of their racial identification," Lewis said.

The school district decided in 2006 to build two new high schools. The old ones were too outdated to be repaired, school officials said.

In order to assign the new Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools equal populations of 1,000 students, redistricting would have to occur, and preparations began last summer, said the school district communications director, Doug Young.

A problem arose because Harriton High School, in the township's western section, pulled fewer students from the less densely populated area around it than did Lower Merion High School, in the township's thickly settled eastern part.

"It was clear that some students who live closer to Lower Merion would have to move to Harriton," said Young. "The challenge here is how do you balance enrollment and do it in a fair and equitable way."

The plan calls for children from Cynwyd, Merion and Penn Wynn Elementary Schools to go to Bala Cynwyd Middle School, and then to Lower Merion High. Students from Gladwyne, Belmont Hills and Penn Valley Elementary Schools would go to Welsh Valley, then to Harriton High.

These feeder patterns exist now, Young said.

But the plan shrinks a "walk zone" around Lower Merion High, cutting from 155 to 75 the number of students who can walk to school, Young said. The remaining 80, from parts of Narberth, South Ardmore and Wynnewood, would be bused to Harriton, said Young.

The third draft of the redistricting plan was made public Nov. 24, and spurred so much public interest - 100 people signed up to speak - that school officials scheduled a second hearing for last night.

On Monday, the school district will announce changes to the draft at a second public hearing. The deadline for written comment is Jan. 6. The board will vote on the redistricting plan Jan. 12.

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.