By refusing to acknowledge the changes that are taking place around them, the Lower Merion School District (“LMSD”) Board and Administration are gambling with the future of educational programs and jeopardizing the completion of renovations at Lower Merion High School.
The District claims that the school board elections and the recommendations of the Community Advisory Committee provided a mandate to build two entirely new high schools to replace Harriton and Lower Merion. However, much has changed, including: (1) an increase in the projected cost of the high school modernization from $150 million to at least $238 million; (2) the enactment of Act 1 requiring voter approval for increases in annual school district spending that exceed an inflationary index; and, (3) unprecedented public scrutiny of the District’s performance and spending per student, which is already the highest in Pennsylvania by a wide margin.
When confronted with the reality of its out of control spending, the District has denied the problem, and has continued with business as usual. The Board has not undertaken the comprehensive review of programs that was promised when the 2006/07 budget was approved last spring. They have not explained why annual spending per student is 53.6% higher than Tredyffrin-Easttown and 33.6% higher than Radnor, two neighboring districts that are also recognized for excellence. They have not explained why the Harriton High School will be 262.4 square feet per student (vs. the national median of 162.5 square feet for schools currently under construction), or why it will cost $78,600 per student (vs. the national median of $30,000 per student for schools currently under construction). They have refused to answer why the plans for New Harriton High School include at least a dozen rooms that were not included in the specifications that were prepared by their consultant.
Instead, the Board has thwarted constructive dialogue by editing and refusing to air public meetings. They have repeatedly denied public requests for information. They have dodged legitimate questions and verbally attacked members of the public at school board meetings. Board President Rosenwald has fabricated statistics about the number of citizens who sent letters supporting the two new schools at any cost. They have designed more expensive schools specifically to avoid a referendum under Act 34, the Taj Mahal Act. The Board even voted by a 5 to 3 margin to hire a public relations and issue advocacy firm (at taxpayer expense) to “sell” the taxpayers on their extravagant capital program.
The Board and Administration could have built credibility, goodwill and community support for the reasonable modernization of both high schools. They could have listened and scaled back New Harriton when it became apparent that it was too big and too expensive. Instead, by denying that there is a problem, the Board has engendered doubt and mistrust. In the process, they have created the very real possibility that New Harriton will be constructed, but that voters will reject the additional funds necessary to modernize Lower Merion. Rather than ending up with two schools that are reasonably modernized, the western portion of the district could end up with an extravagant New Harriton, while the eastern portion is left with the current Lower Merion, and no additional funds to renovate without significantly curtailing programs.
To avoid this outcome, the District must acknowledge that costs have gotten out of hand. The Board and Administration must immediately instruct their design professionals to re-design New Harriton so that it is in line with other comparable projects on both a square foot per student and cost per student basis. They must re-design Lower Merion to the same specifications. The Board must re-examine the decision to entirely demolish both sites; adaptive re-use of at least portions of both schools would save the District millions.
This Board can salvage its legacy and restore public trust by modernizing Harriton for $70 million instead of $98 million. If they modernize Harriton to a reasonable size and cost, there is a high likelihood that there will be both the funds and the votes to complete a responsible modernization of Lower Merion High School as well. If they don’t, the voters will have the final say in the next school board elections and in the referendum for the Lower Merion modernization project. Ultimately, the students will suffer if the modernization of Lower Merion is not approved, and this Board will have no one to blame but themselves.
To find out more about the District’s plans, visit www.lmsd.info. Please attend the next School Board meeting on Monday, January 22 at 8:00 PM in the Lower Merion High School library and demand reasonable modernization of both high schools, rather than the extravagant plan for New Harriton that is currently being considered.
Stephen J. Gleason
Stephen J. Gleason