No room to grow: Crowded suburban Philly schools struggle to secure new land to build

Suburban Philadelphia communities are clashing with their districts over how their overcrowded schools should handle growing populations.

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Clifton Heights athletic fields are threatened by the Upper Darby school board's plan to build a new middle school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Clifton Heights athletic fields are threatened by the Upper Darby school board's plan to build a new middle school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thousands of people move to suburban Philadelphia every year, which means thousands of new students enrolled in public school systems.

However, many of these school districts are already crowded, facing budget deficits, and in desperate need of more space to build new schools. And in heavily developed areas, finding space to build new classrooms has become a bigger challenge than paying for it.

The Upper Darby School District in Delaware County says 108 middle school classes have more than 30 students in them, and many of them attend class in basements or trailers.

Last year, a study by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based educational research organization said the district is underfunded by 22%, and also noted that members of the community felt the school was even worse off than that.

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At the district’s Drexel Hill Middle School, students have been attending class for the past 15 years in trailers that were initially designed to be used for just five years.

“Earlier this year, one of my children was evacuated from one of the trailers because when the heat came on, the room filled with smoke. So now you have kids who — it’s cold weather, they’re outside, they don’t have coats, they’re being evacuated,” said Alison Dobbins, who has two children at Drexel Hill. “They try their best, but why continue to invest more in something that was supposed to be temporary and is clearly getting to the end of their shelf life?”

The heart of Clifton Heights

The Upper Darby School District submitted plans last month to build a new middle school on Clifton Heights’ athletic field, which has caused an uproar in the community. Residents say they won’t have enough space for youth sports leagues without it.

Since 1977, the Upper Darby district has owned the field, but has leased it back to Clifton Heights for $1 a year. This arrangement dates to when Clifton Heights’ own school district was absorbed into Upper Darby. School officials decided to build on the field in Clifton, mainly because the district already owns the land and says it does not have the money to buy a new property and build a new middle school.

Meredith Hegg, a Clifton resident and candidate for Upper Darby School Board, says the field is the heart of the town.

“We have most community events here, the fireworks, the carnival, all those sports are here, the Police Athletic League, the Boys Club,” she said. “Pretty much if something’s happening in Clifton, it’s happening here.”

Meredith Hegg, a Clifton Heights Democrat, is a candidate for the Upper Darby School Board. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Last month, the district ended that lease, which caused a stir in the Clifton community. With no deal in place, Clifton must now remove all of its community athletic equipment and surrender the field by August.

The district said this was the only way it could conduct a required environmental study of the area.

Upper Darby Superintendent Dan McGarry said previous attempts to study the field resulted in threats of criminal trespassing.

“We had to take back the fields, break the lease so we could go onto our own property to complete this environmental work. That’s why we had to break the lease. If we were going to work with each other to do that, we probably maybe wouldn’t have to do that,” he said.

McGarry also said he could not recall Clifton Heights ever paying the annual ceremonial dollar rent for the field.

Anger on both sides

Clifton Heights Mayor Joseph Lombardo says the district has not been as transparent as he would like.

“They haven’t been very forthcoming. They’re not transparent. They like to tell people that they are. They have behind door, backdoor meetings, and make decisions not in the public where they’re there to serve the public,” he said. “They’re supposed to be making decisions and getting public comment in public meetings and they’re not, and that’s just the way that they run things.”

McGarry disputes the notion that the district hasn’t been transparent.

“Our board meetings are recorded. They’re public, and they’re recorded, and they’re available for review. All the documents are public and for review,” McGarry said. “I don’t know, but I can’t seem to find any of Clifton Heights’ ordinance passes or conversations that are recorded, or are out there in the same way. We have repeatedly asked for meetings. I have asked for meetings. I have had conversations with Mayor Lombardo.”

In the district’s plans, McGarry said 51% of the field space will still be available for public use. The district insists the fields, as well as the forthcoming gymnasiums, will still accommodate all of Clifton’s youth and sports programs.

“I understand that they have a history that in the early 70s, they feel that they were not respected in the use of fields or the use of facilities when they were forced to merge with the school district,” McGarry said. “But we have every intention of continuing a partnership with them, and helping them.”

Hegg wants a written agreement that the school will protect Clifton’s community events and meeting spaces instead of a costly legal battle she said is not worth the strain on the community.

“As I understand it, we don’t really have much legal grounds to fight this. The school district does own the property. It is slated to be used for school and recreational use,” Hegg said. “So my concern is if we engage in a long legal battle, that could result in legal fees that the borough shouldn’t be paying, in my opinion, because I think we could instead work to benefit from this rather than paying legal costs in a battle that’s not going to win.”

The Upper Darby School Board has previously put in writing their plans to continue to allow Clifton’s community traditions and community sports uses. However, that plan doesn’t spell out how all existing users could still have enough field time with half the space.

With no agreement between the district and Clifton Heights on the horizon, Hegg’s fears will likely soon be realized.

“They are set on building this school in Clifton, and we will fight them to the end,” Mayor Lombardo said. “We will take them to court, and we will do the very best that we can do because this is what our citizens want. They do not want a school here.”

Clifton Heights athletic fields are threatened by the Upper Darby school board’s plan to build a new middle school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pa.’s most rapidly growing school district

A different open space dispute is happening in the Lower Merion School District, the fastest-growing district in Pennsylvania. Over the last ten years, the Montgomery County district added 1,708 students, a 24.6% increase in total enrollment, and it anticipates adding an additional 610 students over the next five years.

With enrollment at its highest levels in more than 40 years, the district wants to build a new middle school to alleviate overcrowding.

The first area that was considered was Stoneleigh Garden, a once privately-owned home that has been converted to a public garden. The district tried to acquire the property through eminent domain last year, but was rebuked after numerous protests and public campaigns to “Save Stoneleigh.”

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill last June designed to protect Stoneleigh and other public gardens like it. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Warren Kampf of Tredyffrin, now requires court approval to acquire property through eminent domain that is currently under conservation easement.

The district has since acquired land from the Islamic Foundation and private landowners around Stoneleigh, but there is still concern about how the district will handle the structures on the properties, some of which were built by renowned Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day, who is best known for designing the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field.

Kathleen Abplanalp with the Lower Merion Conservancy hopes that the district is considerate of this when it starts construction on the new middle school.

“We believe that the school district could integrate a lot of these resources into their new fields,” Abplanalp said. “We’ve consulted with a landscape architect who has demonstrated that these kinds of plans are viable.”

Amy Buckman, spokeswoman for the Lower Merion School District, says the district plans to incorporate some of those structures into its new campus.

“On the Islamic Foundation property, the buildings will be coming down, but on the field space property, there is a mansion that is a Class-2 Historical Structure that, under our current plans, we hope to maintain and use for future school district use such as a student art gallery or other purposes,” she said.

The school district has held more than 40 public meetings so far about its plans for the new school, and with Stoneleigh off the table, the district and local conservationists have maintained a working relationship.


Editors note: This story was updated to include the Upper Darby School District’s resolution pledging to accommodate existing use of the Clifton Heights field.

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