Anonymous Eden Prairie group threatens school boundary suit

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2011 - 6:23 AM

For months, the Eden Prairie parents' organization has railed against district's desegregation plan.

Eden Prairie parents fighting a school desegregation plan say they'll release a proposal for a settlement with the school district in the next week.

The district's attorneys are baffled. What settlement? To what dispute?

"Huh?" Minneapolis attorney Dan Shulman said after the group's announcement last week. "What can I say? All we hear is saber-rattling, and we can't find the sabers or the people behind them."

It's been that way for six months as leaders of the group Yes For Neighborhood Schools have confounded school leaders and waged an elusive, prolonged war against the 9,700-student school district.

The showdown using the Internet and anonymous statements offers a preview of what other districts across the metro area could face over the highly sensitive, contentious issue.

The Eden Prairie group recently spoke publicly for the first time through one parent, defending anonymous e-mails that have warned of a lawsuit and shedding new light on a largely faceless group.

"We stop fighting when a judge tells us that it can't go any further," said Nancy Frischmon, an Eden Prairie resident with five school-aged children. "But until then, we don't stop."

From St. Louis Park to New Prague, parents already are organizing and sharing school information via Facebook and blogs. While community backlash to school closings, budget cuts or new attendance boundaries is not uncommon, rarely has it persisted as long as it has in Eden Prairie.

In the affluent, high-achieving suburb, a widely watched December vote by the school board to reconfigure schools and alter boundary lines to achieve socioeconomic desegregation fueled a volatile debate that's split the community. Other suburban districts face similar demographic challenges. In Eden Prairie, though, much of the animosity is targeted at Superintendent Melissa Krull, the plan's champion.

Numerous e-mails from Yes For Neighborhood Schools -- signed "Editors" -- have threatened a lawsuit and demanded that Krull's contract not be renewed. Frischmon said group leaders are working to get like-minded candidates to run for four open school board spots in November. And they've retained Missouri lawyer John Munich, who has a history of fighting school desegregation.

This winter the group's attorneys requested hundreds of pages of documents from the district to see how plans were developed. In the next week, Munich will release details of their settlement proposal, Frischmon said, saying only that it will aim to reduce the achievement gap with a different plan.

If their plan is not adopted, she said, they'll sue.

The district has paid $29,570 in legal fees to respond to the group since January. All for a group that district leaders say they don't know much about.

"We still don't know who's behind the organization,'' said Wendy Wildung, a Minneapolis attorney also retained by the district. "It seems like another publicity ploy."

Who's behind the group?

Last October, as proposed new boundaries were released, Frischmon said about 30 parents launched the yesforneighborhoodschools.org website. They were united in opposition to a "recycled busing experiment," or the plan to bus some kids farther from their neighborhood to balance concentrations of low-income students.

The website has organized protests and petitions, promoted meetings and shared research that disputes benefits of busing plans. It seeks financial contributions through a Minnetonka post office box; the initial goal was to raise $100 per family. Frischmon declined to say how much has been raised.

The group counts "several hundred" supporters, mostly involved parents including many who frequent board meetings, she said.

"It's a diverse group of cultures, religions, income levels," she said. "They're involved and they want to close the achievement gap. They expect more from our school district than they're providing."

In Eden Prairie, some posts on a Facebook group devoted to school issues are from apparent assumed names. Yes For Neighborhood Schools releases statements via anonymous e-mails, a tactic that Wildung called "pretty unorthodox."

Frischmon said some parents fear retaliation from the district if they speak publicly, but she declined to give examples. Plan supporters also were reluctant to speak out, saying it's become uncomfortable to talk about it in social circles.

Beyond Eden Prairie's borders, the group has attracted support from what Frischmon called "national legal foundations'' and experts like David Armor, a George Mason University professor who has testified in more than 40 school desegregation and equity cases.

"There are not many examples of socioeconomic busing in the country," Armor said.

Munich did not respond to recent attempts to reach him.

Dedicated parents

Frischmon's name is one of two on an incorporation form for Yes For Neighborhood Schools that was filed in November with the Minnesota secretary of state's office. The other is Kelly Scott Schwantz. Both listed Eden Prairie addresses.

Schwantz didn't return a message seeking comment. The Eden Prairie Sun Current quoted her at a protest, saying she was upset that the district wasn't listening to input.

Frischmon said she and her husband, Dave, have volunteered at their kids' schools, attended board meetings and joined 200-plus protesters outside the high school last fall.

"Eden Prairie -- whatever side you fall on -- has dedicated parents," she said.

This fall, when two of their kids would move from Prairie View to Forest Hills Elementary, they'll be driven 12 minutes to a Minnetonka school.

"It's not about wanting to keep the kids at a school," she said. "I don't agree with how [Krull's] running the district, and I don't agree with how four board members are running the district."

Defending the district

In the past two months, Krull visited every school to discuss this fall's changes. In a May meeting with transportation staff, she said changes will solve capacity issues, eliminate a school transition for kids and better serve an ever-more-diverse district by reducing concentrations of low-income kids.

"We will never be a district with segregated schools by income if we don't have to," she told the packed room.

At a June meeting, Krull told Rotary Club members that she knows that families have left the district in protest, but she doesn't know how many and hopes they return.

As of this week, Minnetonka has received 132 open-enrollment applications from Eden Prairie parents for fall -- nearly double last year's number.

"We aren't harboring ill will," Krull said. "If they can find their way back to us, we'll find a spot for them."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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