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Continued: No balancing act for Chaska, Chanhassen

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 17, 2008 - 10:37 PM

The Chaska School District's Boundary Task Force has decided to bypass a plan that would have balanced racial and socio-economic diversity between Chaska High and the new Chanhassen High due to open in 2009.

The panel instead will recommend a plan that allows students to go to school with other students from the city where they live, the district said.

School board members are expected to discuss and possibly vote on the proposal at a meeting Thursday. If the plan is adopted, it likely would be in effect for several years.

Task force members developed the diversity-balancing plan recently after hearing criticism about their original proposal from residents concerned that the new school's student population would be more affluent than that at Chaska High.

"The task force felt it had to respond and do a second proposal that let go of keeping cities together," said Nancy Kracke, the district's community relations director. "It's a collision of two important values in this community."

Under the original proposal -- the one the task force will now recommend -- about 21 percent of the students at Chaska High would qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared with 7 percent at Chanhassen High. Similarly, 17 percent of the Chaska High student body would be ethnically diverse compared with 9 percent at Chanhassen High.

Based on the diversity-balancing proposal, 15 percent of the Chaska High students and 13 percent of the Chanhassen High students would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And 14 percent of the Chaska High students and 13 percent of the Chanhassen High students would be ethnically diverse, the district said.

While residents praised the district and task force for providing an opportunity to discuss diversity, some parents argued the second plan could do more harm than good for the fast-growing west-suburban school district.

Helen Hollands of Chanhassen said she can see the site of the new high school from her backyard. But under the second boundary proposal, her daughter and their neighbors' children wouldn't attend the new school. They'd be assigned to Chaska High, about 2 miles away.

"Here we are, 100 yards from the school, and under this proposal we wouldn't go there," Hollands said. "It seems silly.

"When kids get to fifth and sixth grade they develop good friendships and it contributes to their success in life," Hollands said. "We're all part of the same community. This erodes community spirit."

More than 1,000 district residents completed a survey about the two proposals that was available on the district's website through last week. Detailed results of the survey were not available, but Kracke said it indicated most residents supported the first proposal.

Other districts' approach

Other metro-area school districts have made similar transitions in recent years. Lakeville School District opened Lakeville South High, its second high school, in 2005. South Washington County will open its third high school, East Ridge, next fall.

South Washington County's plan works to balance enrollment and consider areas with projected population growth. Lakeville officials had similar goals. Neither district factored socio-economic indicators into school assignments.

"We don't take into account socio-economic or racial issues when we're doing boundaries," said Linda Swanson, a spokeswoman for the Lakeville School District. "Of course, there was talk about [diversity], but the real issue is the balance of students in the schools."

One of Chaska's neighboring school districts, Eden Prairie, backed away last November from redrawing its elementary school boundaries to balance racial diversity, largely because of a Supreme Court ruling.

Last summer, the court had ruled in cases out of Seattle and Louisville that race cannot be used as an explicit factor in determining students' assignments. As a result, Eden Prairie scaled back its plans and made boundary changes for its elementary schools that balanced overall enrollment.

Community responds

In eastern Carver County, the second boundary proposal attracted so much attention that Chanhassen Mayor Tom Furlong got calls about it. Furlong said many residents preferred the original plan because it's easier to understand.

"Having been through the public process at City Hall, we know there are bumps in the process, but it gives residents the chance to ferret out the good and the bad," he said.

Hollands praised the district for allowing residents to comment on the proposals. She said she believes diversity is important, but added that many residents supported the referendum to build the new school because it's closer to their homes.

Now those residents, who mostly remained silent when the original proposal was first aired, have let the district know they favor it.

"The reason they didn't get much feedback about the first proposal was because almost everyone thought it was fine," she said.

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395

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