Starting May 15, the only thing headed home via Elk River schools' backpack mail will come directly from the schools.

That means nothing from the Boy and Girl Scouts. Nothing from athletic or other extracurricular booster clubs. Not even parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) will be able to drop off literature to be distributed to the students.

The Elk River school board made the decision last week that it would adopt a closed policy regarding the distribution in the schools of written materials by outside organizations. That decision came in reaction to a U.S. District Court ruling that the school district had discriminated against the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota by prohibiting the group from distributing materials in Elk River schools.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship is "kind of like a Bible club" that teaches children about the Bible and ethics, said state coordinator Dave Tunell. The fellowship has clubs in several Elk River schools, he said.

Although Elk River had a limited access policy toward distribution of outside materials in the schools, a district official forbade Child Evangelism Fellowship from handing out literature at school open houses in 2007 and 2008. District officials argued that they were not required to allow such access, and were, in fact, following the letter of the federal law that guides such school policies.

At the time, the district wanted to get a handle on the amount of material that was coming through the schools, said Elk River schools attorney Ivars Krafts.

"Really, the whole thing started over the issue of the expense to the district," he said. "It was cumbersome for the district to start handing out everybody's advertising."

The Evangelism Fellowship took the school district to court. Last month, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled that Elk River schools discriminated against the fellowship by not allowing the group to drop off literature at the schools and deprived the group of its free-speech rights. However, the district could still keep the fellowship and other outside groups from distributing literature to students by adopting a "closed" policy regarding such literature drops.

The board agonized over changing to a closed policy, but decided the court decision opened a "Pandora's box for a lot of groups to come in and use our kids as delivery people again," said Elk River school board chairwoman Sue Farber,

Parent support groups affected

The problem with the new policy, as district officials see it, is that it freezes out parent support groups.

"I think it's really unfortunate that the largest group of people hurt are the people who support schools the most," Farber said. "That's our PTOs. We don't want to lose our partnership with them."

District spokesman Casey Mahon said the board decided to delay implementation of the new policy until May 15 to allow a few PTOs in the midst of fundraising campaigns to continue spreading the word. The Elk River school board decided not to continue the legal battle after Montgomery's ruling.

"We don't have the money for that," Mahon said. "We're cutting $8 million (over the next two years). Is it a good idea to continue the legal process when you need that money for the classroom?"

Until May 15, district officials say, any number of groups will be able to drop off literature for kids at district schools. There are limitations, Krafts said. "The district has a right to exclude anything termed harmful and detrimental to students and the learning process," he said.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship has already taken advantage of the court ruling and the opening available to the group until the policy changes May 15. Fellowship members immediately dropped off materials at district elementary schools where it has clubs, Tunell said. The clubs themselves are not affected by the court ruling or the board decision, Tunell said.

"In one of the schools, the club nearly doubled in size because of the announcements being sent home," he said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547