There is no easy fix for the redistricting mess created by the Lower Merion school board when it adopted a plan aimed at balancing enrollment at its two high schools.

What would seem like a routine procedure, which is easily handled without much fanfare at the start of every school year in districts across the nation, has touched off a firestorm in Lower Merion.

School board members had the right idea in trying to balance the populations at the township's two high schools by busing students from some neighborhoods to Harriton High, even though they may live closer to Lower Merion High.

But how the board came up with its boundary lines seems arbitrary at best, and racially divisive at worst. Either way, the board should give residents an acceptable explanation for its assignments of students to the two schools before moving forward.

By targeting poorer neighborhoods with mostly minority students for busing, the plan resembles redlining more than it does redistricting - with minorities bearing the brunt of the arrangement.

Minority students who live in narrow strips of South Ardmore, North Narberth and Penn Valley would be forced to attend Harriton, though Lower Merion High is closer to their homes.

The school board says the redistricting plan would disrupt the fewest number of students. It would give both schools populations of 1,050 to 1,100 by 2012.

Parents with children in struggling Philadelphia schools may view the controversy as much ado about nothing. Lower Merion has one of the best school systems in the region, and affected students will likely get a good education at either high school.

But there is an important issue here. Besides breaking up neighborhoods in South Ardmore and North Narberth, the plan requires mostly low-income and minority families to deal with busing their children over a long distance. Those two communities have no representatives on the school board. That could explain why the plan was passed despite objections from residents.

Minorities represent about 32 percent of the students being bused, although they comprise less than 20 percent of the district's student enrollment.

Redistricting is needed because 70 percent of the township's families live in its heavily settled eastern end, near Lower Merion High, while 30 percent are clustered around Harriton High in the western end.

The district has tried to lure students to Harriton with a new curriculum, and it has offered any middle-school student in the township a chance to attend Harriton.

As school board member Gary J. Friedlander noted, "there is no perfect plan." But the board needs to try to do better than what it has offered.

Instead of rushing to implement redistricting in the fall, the board should go back to the drawing board and reassess the impact of this plan. That could also help it avoid a likely legal battle that might result in a busing plan undesirable to even more residents.