The new magnet schools proposed in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district come with state funding and the promise of additional specialized instruction for students who love dance, engineering and more.

But approving final plans has been far from simple for the school board, which has debated aspects of each of three new magnet programs as district employees seek the authority to launch them next fall.

The biggest controversy centers on a high school program in the performing arts center under construction in Burnsville, with some board members agitating to find stand-alone space for core-subject classes instead of going along with initial plans to have students spend half their days at Burnsville High School or Nicollet Junior High.

But discussion of all three programs has raised questions about how best to reach the district's goals of giving students more options and lessening a racial imbalance with neighboring Lakeville.

"I feel backed into a corner, and I don't know how we got here," said board member Sue Martin during a prolonged stand-off Thursday night over the arts magnet school.

Martin and other board members worried that the district may lose space in the city's arts center to a competing tenant if the program doesn't start next year, and several questioned the wisdom of leasing outside classroom space.

But three board members -- Dan Luth, Ron Hill and Nancy Banyard -- opposed housing the program at Burnsville High School even if it means delays, saying the program would have a better chance at success if students took classes together and didn't have to shuttle to and from the arts center.

The city hasn't been talking with any competing tenants, and it's excited about the chance to work with the district, said Tom Hansen, Burnsville's deputy city manager. Still, he said, "Our goal is to make that operation break even, if not make money, for the city, and in that sense every conceivable tenant, every conceivable act, is very important to us."

Classes down the street

The board came up with a possible compromise Thursday that would have students take most, if not all, of their core classes down the street from the arts center at Diamondhead Education Center next fall. District staff will research how that might work and bring plans back to the board on Nov. 20.

The magnet schools are part of an integration plan created by the district to address a racial imbalance with Lakeville, which also is considering new magnet programs. State law requires neighboring districts with minority populations that differ by more than 20 percentage points to find more ways for their students to interact.

Students of color make up 12 percent of Lakeville's population, compared with about 35 percent in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage.

In addition to the arts program, the district envisions a gifted-and-talented magnet school at Harriet Bishop Elementary, and a program at William Byrne Elementary and Metcalf Junior High School for students passionate about science, math, engineering and technology (STEM).

The school board gave the STEM program a thumbs-up Thursday night, but even that unanimous decision came after heated debate the week before, with board members conflicted over whether they should expand the program to other schools in the district.

The state allows districts to use integration funding on magnet schools largely because they can attract students of different races across school and district boundaries, resulting in a more even mix.

Offering the same specialized program at many schools can dilute that effect. Still, school leaders considering magnet schools are often torn between thinking, "Well, we want to offer something distinctive" and "If this is so good, it ought to be available to all the kids," said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

The gifted-and-talented magnet program proposed at Harriet Bishop Elementary would combine enriched lessons for all children in the building with a school-within-a-school for profoundly gifted students. Students who attend the school this year could stay, but those coming from outside attendance boundaries would have to qualify as gifted in order to attend, said Aldo Sicoli, an assistant superintendent in the district.

Racial disparities

Harriet Bishop has the lowest percentage of minority students of any elementary school in the district, so smoothing racial disparities will mean attracting more students of color to the school.

But minority students are often underrepresented on the rolls of students identified as gifted in public schools, and many of the students coming to Harriet Bishop from Lakeville -- assuming they reflect the overall makeup of the district -- would be white.

Even so, the district hopes to increase Harriet Bishop's diversity by recruiting students of color who qualify to attend and measuring giftedness in several different ways, without lowering standards, said Eileen Abrahamson, magnet program coordinator with the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district. And though the district can't make enrollment decisions based on race, it does plan to give preference to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Bottom line, Sicoli said: "You can recruit and you can encourage, but ultimately they are voluntary programs, so it's hard to get guarantees."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016