The ads rotate on an electronic billboard — past the beer and the sandwich deals — to a shot of three Minnetonka school board incumbents and a message to voters who decide Tuesday who will fill four school board seats: “Continue the Excellence.”
Use of the billboard is an unusual tactic for a local race, but the incumbents are in a crowded field that for the first time includes challengers determined to rein in the district’s aggressive use of open enrollment to attract students. It is a practice the school system has said it needs to generate revenue and fund a broad array of program offerings.
Incumbents voted recently to cap enrollment to make clear the board no longer intended to “grow the district.” The action occurred during the same school board meeting in which it was reported that 37.5% of Minnetonka elementary students this year live outside the district.
A group of four challengers running as “4TONKA” note the district has stated twice before in recent years that it was nearing capacity and then jumped past those numbers. As Election Day approaches, the four find themselves battling not just the incumbents and other like-minded candidates, but the district itself.
At Minnewashta Elementary, which a year ago grew from eight to 11 kindergarten classrooms, Principal Cindy Andress wrote to district parents on Oct. 28 asking them to watch a video in which she stated there was a “false narrative” that the school was overcrowded. Two 4TONKA candidates, Sarah Clymer and Trevor Thurling, have children at the school, and they and others have cited the carving out of a permanent classroom in the school’s media center as one piece of evidence to the contrary.
The principal’s video also was intended to dispel the notion there was teaching occurring in the school’s vestibules — a concern that arose after the practice actually did occur last school year at Groveland Elementary. A parent recently posted a picture of that teaching space, which had a sign saying, “Quiet Please Class In Session,” on Nextdoor.com and it generated more than 200 comments.
JacQueline Getty, the district’s spokeswoman, said last week that use of the Groveland vestibule “had nothing to do with overcrowding,” and despite that it might be needed as an emergency exit, it has not been used as a common entrance for some time — and that all of the district’s buildings met fire code.
“When district leadership learned of the teacher at Groveland periodically using that space last year, the teacher was told she could no longer use it, and it has not been used since,” Getty wrote in an e-mail.
Recently, the district circulated a “school news postcard” that contained a vigorous defense of its open enrollment practices. A box on the same page urged readers to vote in the school board election Nov. 5.
The Star Tribune sent a copy to Erick Kaardal, an attorney who several years ago successfully sued the St. Louis County School District for issuing an advocacy piece related to a bond vote.
Kaardal said that the Minnetonka mailer “advocating its open enrollment policies a few weeks before contentious school board elections is legally unauthorized. By law, the school district can incur regular election expenses, like printing ballots, but the school district is legally banned from spending taxpayer funds on campaigning to influence school board elections — as it has done here.”
He added Superintendent Dennis Peterson and school board members should “pay for the campaign piece themselves.”
Getty said about 24,000 copies were produced and that the total cost, including mailing, was about $4,650.
Asked about Kaardal’s comments, she sent a statement from the school district’s attorney, Greg Madsen:
“The mailers referenced in this statement were not campaign materials,” he wrote. “There was no advocacy for any candidate or question on the ballot, and no suggestion that constituents should vote in a certain way.
“This was a routine mailer to inform the community of the enrollment process and to explain the district’s current strategy with respect to open enrollment,” he added. “The district commonly distributes information explaining the benefits of existing district programs and policies, and doing so is a proper and legal function of the school district.”
Minnetonka’s campaign to recruit students via open enrollment goes back more than 10 years and has put it in the enviable position of not having to cut its annual budgets.
Now, with the Oct. 3 move to cap enrollment at 11,100 students — there were 11,062 at the time — the district faces the prospect of reducing its current $25 million rainy-day fund to about $1.7 million in 2025-26, according to projections referenced then by Peterson, the superintendent.
Incumbents seeking re-election are: Lisa Wagner and Katie Becker, the board’s chairwoman and vice chairwoman, respectively, and Mark Ambrosen, a retired air traffic controller who first was elected four years ago.
In addition to Clymer and Thurling, 4TONKA candidates include Josh Wilcox and Julie Light. The group responded to the district’s open-enrollment mailing with its own written statement:
“Many residents have reached out to us questioning the district’s use of taxpayer communication channels and taxpayer dollars to discredit our positions and therefore advance other specific candidates,” the group wrote. “The district clearly doesn’t agree with some of our platform and positions; however, the parents and other residents who have contacted us with concerns about the district’s involvement have shared with us that these perceived efforts to dissuade residents from voting for us reminds them of why we need change.”