On a sunny afternoon last week, Tim Cadotte, principal of Burroughs Community School in south Minneapolis, opened a thick binder that held the case that had questioned his reputation and cost him many sleepless nights over the past 10 months.

The document culminating the inquisition can probably be best described as surreal, the work of a system either hellbent on retribution or so enamored of its own bureaucracy that it cannot see it has wasted the better part of a year rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Perhaps the most perplexing, disingenuous thing is that the incident that started it all is not even mentioned in the final document.

Cadotte's troubles began after he and Minneapolis School Board Member Chris Stewart got into a heated argument last April. Cadotte and others say Stewart accused him, and Burroughs parents, of being racists because they had tried to save a program for Hispanic students, the impact of which may have been for the school not to receive a transfer of more black students.

The day after the incident, Bernadeia Johnson, who is now the sole candidate for the next superintendent of schools, summoned Cadotte. Thus began months of digging through Cadotte's record, including culling hundreds of e-mails going back years. Meanwhile, Cadotte was suspended without pay for 10 days.

Cadotte and Minneapolis Public Schools have now reached a settlement reducing that suspension to three days. Cadotte reluctantly agreed to talk about it. He was more saddened than angry, although angry seems an appropriate response to me.

Here's what MPS found during its probe:

Cadotte let a few checks leave the building without two signatures, against district policy. No wrongdoing is alleged, just haste. The horror.

Cadotte allegedly violated media policy. A photographer snapped a shot of a student hugging Cadotte. Turns out he had permission on file to hug that student, he just didn't know it at the time -- a violation.

MPS said Cadotte violated policy against free outside legal help. In fact, Cadotte said he paid his attorney, but he refused to answer questions about it because it was attorney-client privilege.

It also looked into accusations that Cadotte made racially offensive remarks and found he did not.

The district also investigated whether he "endorsed" racially offensive remarks made by other people -- people beyond his control. The district was "unable to determine" whether that was true. In other words, those accusing Cadotte of racism won't say he's not a racist, they'll just raise the question and leave it hanging there to tarnish him forever.

Ironically, Stewart met with Cadotte in August and, after a few tense minutes, had a healthy two-hour conversation during which Stewart apologized, Cadotte said.

"Upon his departure, any hard feelings or animosity I had for him was gone," said Cadotte. "It was a tremendous weight off my shoulders and I really appreciate what he did."

It should have happened months earlier, but give Stewart credit for reaching out. The school district, however, continued the hunt.

"The question I keep asking myself is, when did I go from a highly regarded principal to a demon?" Cadotte said. "I always asked questions and sometimes they were hard questions, but right now we need to ask those. Now I and others have been silenced, and everybody knows you don't ask questions in the MPS. Many people have called me and said, 'I don't want to be another Tim Cadotte.'"

When I last wrote about this issue, I got many calls from MPS employees saying the same. One man said he was resigning as an administrator because it was no longer allowed to disagree on anything.

Too bad nobody down at MPS headquarters, where "inclusive" is part of the daily creed, could see the impact of their inquest. Cadotte, a gay man, said the toughest thing about the past year is the effect it has had on his family, which includes two adopted sons from a Russian orphanage.

"They truly thought I was going to lose my job, and that they would not have anything to eat again," he said. "That broke my heart."

I asked Cadotte what the experience has taught him. He sighed deeply.

"I've learned to keep my mouth shut, which I know is wrong," he said. "But I've learned to do as I'm told. I feel that at any moment somebody is going to get me."

In a couple of weeks, the school board will likely anoint Johnson, said to be a talented and committed educator, as superintendent of schools. If she is to become the great leader this city desperately needs, I really hope she will recognize that sometimes the most important voices to listen to are the ones that don't always agree with you.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702