The current Lower Merion School District (“LMSD”) Board and Administration have often stated that they were elected and hired based on their agenda of building two new high schools for the District. Now that the bids for the new Harriton High School have come in wildly over budget, it is a good time to examine where we stand with respect to high school modernization.
To summarize, the District hand selected a Community Advisory Committee (“CAC”) that supported their agenda. They provided the CAC with poor assumptions and misinformation to lead it to the conclusion in May of 2004 that the only feasible solution was to build two entirely new high schools to replace Harriton and Lower Merion. The estimated price tag for this work was $150 million.
Three years later, and in the face of unprecedented community opposition, the Board and Administration have blindly pursued their extravagant goal, even as the price tag has risen to $238 million, and now (at least) $251 million. They have tried to discredit what they have labeled an “opposition group” of citizens, i.e. anyone who does not fall in line and support their plans. They have designed the schools specifically to avoid a voter referendum under Act 34, the Taj Mahal Act, which was enacted to allow voter choice on just such extravagant projects. Despite repeated requests, the Board and Administration have failed to identify even one high school anywhere in the country that has matched the proposed New Harriton in terms of square footage per student or cost per student. Finally, the Board and Administration recently revealed that they have collected an extra $20 million in taxes from the community (including $5.1 million in the 2007-08 budget that is currently proposed) so that it can be diverted as a “down payment” on the new schools, this time to circumvent the referendum mechanisms under the recently passed Act 1.
So, what do we have to show for the work of this Board and Administration after four years? Well, we have new state-of-the-art turf athletic fields at both Harriton and Lower Merion. We have lost the historic and beautiful Clarke House to the wrecking ball. We own some vacant land to accommodate the District’s ridiculous plan for off-site bus storage. The lawyers have made a lot of money defending lawsuits from neighbors and other groups who have been outraged by the District’s ill-conceived plans. The existing Lower Merion and Harriton buildings have deteriorated a little more since the District is not allocating sufficient funds for routine maintenance, despite extraordinary efforts by the District’s maintenance and engineering crews. Finally, we have a Board and Administration that have lost all credibility because of their many missteps, but more importantly because of their simple failure to listen to the will of the community as the true scope and cost of their extravagant plans have become known. Anyone who has attended a Board meeting will attest to the fact that this Board, led by Board President Rosenwald, is absolutely unwilling to answer questions or listen to views other than their own when it comes to high school modernization.
It is time to elect a new School Board that will listen to the entire community, not just their hand-picked committees and loyal supporters. It is time to elect a new School Board that will consider options other than building two brand new high schools that are too big and too expensive. Perhaps each campus could receive a new science and technology building, leaving intact the serviceable classrooms, non-instructional areas and administrative offices. In any case, the new Board must welcome input from the entire community, even if it means a public referendum similar to the one that has recently been authorized by the Upper Dublin School District. After months of denial, the numbers are in, and they support only one conclusion: the proposed brand new high schools are too big and too expensive, even for Lower Merion. It is time to listen to the voice of the community and to adapt to that reality. To learn more, please visit www.lmsd.info.
Stephen J. Gleason, Rosemont
The Bulletin, March 9, 2007