One issue dominates in Anoka-Hennepin

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2011 - 7:46 PM

School board members' positions on the controversial sexual orientation policy may shift after the Nov. 8 election.

With three of six seats up for grabs, next month's Anoka-Hennepin School Board election could change the makeup of a group that has largely supported the district's controversial Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy. It's unlikely to put opponents in the majority, however.

In District 5, Scott Wenzel, the board's only outspoken critic of the policy, is running unopposed. District 2 incumbent Marci Anderson is up against two challengers who say they would rescind the policy. Board Chairman Tom Heidemann, representing District 1, faces an opponent who does not appear to be campaigning for the position.

The policy, which allows teachers to discuss issues involving sexual orientation but requires them to remain neutral, has been a major point of contention in the district, which itself has been under a microscope over its handling of issues related to gay and lesbian students. A lawsuit filed during the summer seeks repeal of the "neutrality policy," contending in part that it does not adequately shield students from bullying based on sexual orientation. District attorneys and the plaintiffs have participated in several mediation sessions, and have reported progress.

Three school board members -- John Hoffman, Michael Sullivan and Kathy Tingelstad -- are not up for re-election until 2014. Like Anderson and Heidemann, they historically have supported the neutrality policy, although sitting members have been barred from discussing the policy in the media pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

Anderson's opponents -- Mary Nelson and Randy Kolb, both of Blaine -- said they were moved to run after watching the district's struggles with the policy. Heidemann's opponent, Darin Rorman, has not taken a public position.

The policy is not the only issue in the race, of course. The five candidates interviewed by the Star Tribune generally agreed that school funding is a vital issue in the state's largest district, as it wrestles with uncertainties in state aid. They support a $48 million levy renewal going before voters on Election Day. For the most part, they agreed that the district has done its best to control spending, including a move to close eight schools last year at an annual savings of $2.9 million.

Anderson, finishing her first four-year term, noted that the time the board spends getting its pennies in line and preparing for the vagaries of the state Legislature could be better spent. (Lawmakers this year delayed $700 million in statewide school funding, after a 2010 delay of $1.4 billion.) She suggested more emphasis on looking for ways to be innovative -- not just in funding, but in academics, and narrowing the achievement gap.

The candidates agreed, also, that negative light from the lawsuit has overshadowed a strong fiscal record, a relatively smooth redistricting process and other progress, including a new data system that could help target resources to the students who need it most.

They diverged over the so-called "neutrality policy."

In accordance with Judge Steven E. Rau's directive, Heidemann said only that it was fair to say that he historically backed the policy.

In a recent interview, Anderson said only, "Overall, I support all the board policies."

Heidemann's opponent, Rorman, of Ramsey, filed for the election on Aug. 12. Multiple attempts to reach him for comment were unfruitful. He did not attend a September candidate forum. He did tell Minnesota Public Radio in August that he believes the district should reexamine its anti-bullying policies.

Wenzel commended the district's anti-bullying policies, but reiterated that he would strike the neutrality policy from the books, and that teachers who act inappropriately would face consequences in any case.

"Teachers are supposed to be professional," he said. "I don't think it's needed. All it does is attract negative attention to our school district and wastes time, energy and resources."

In District 2, Blaine and Coon Rapids, Nelson and Kolb also said they would seek to have the policy rescinded.

"I don't think it's supported by the teachers," said Nelson, a retired registered nurse. "They're not sure if they say something that it will be the wrong thing. They're afraid they'll get fired, and this hampers their ability to directly work with the kids who are doing the harassment."

Kolb, a former educator in South Dakota and Nebraska, said the anti-bullying policies are a start. "I don't think it goes quite far enough because I think you need to do more than curb the physical activity. At some point, you need to start addressing attitudes. I think that's what this is all about. I believe very strongly in 'do unto others,' and everyone is different somehow."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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