A southwest Minneapolis school principal was placed on paid administrative leave Monday after an unannounced visit from a school board member escalated into an argument between the two men last week that included charges of racism, district parents said.

Board Member Chris Stewart made a surprise visit to Burroughs Elementary School on Friday during which he called Burroughs Principal Tim Cadotte and the entire school community racist, parents said.

Burroughs' parent-staff site council has disagreed with a decision to begin phasing out a program for Spanish-speaking students and opposed the possible reassignment of Burroughs students to other schools in changes expected to be announced later this month. The council issued a statement on its position in March and sent it to a wide range of local officials as well as parents.

As principal, Cadotte, who has been principal of Burroughs, an award-winning K-5 school, since 1999, is a member of the site council.

Parents said he received a call from district headquarters after Stewart's visit and was summoned to appear before Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson on Monday.

Stan Alleyne, district communications director, confirmed that Cadotte was placed on indefinite paid administrative leave Monday and said an interim principal will be appointed by this afternoon.

The unusual move comes as Minneapolis faces a $28 million deficit and seeks to make budget cuts that in some cases touch on sensitivities about urban geography, race and class.

Stewart confirmed in an interview that he had visited the school but refused to discuss the nature of his conversation with Cadotte and the disciplinary action against him.

Contacted Monday night at his home, Cadotte said he couldn't discuss the situation. Roger Aronson, Cadotte's lawyer, did not return calls.

Stewart "came into Burroughs Friday [and started the argument because] he sees the [site council's] statement as racist against African-Americans," said Kip Wennerlund, co-chair of Burroughs' site council. "He's an elected official who is at times out of control."

Minneapolis public schools officials are preparing a draft plan to downsize the district by the 2010-11 school year. Although the entirety of the plan is not known, it will include fewer schools and changes to boundaries, bus routes and program locations.

The district estimates that the changes -- deemed necessary because of declining enrollment and budget deficits -- will affect about a third of its 32,500 students. District officials will present a draft restructuring plan to the school board on April 28.

Burroughs and Lake Harriet  elementary schools, both in southwest Minneapolis, are among the district's highest-performing schools. They also have some of the city's lowest percentages of poor and minority students.

Burroughs' site council, in a letter dated March 27, urged the district to recommit to the Spanish-speaking population. The letter said "keeping these students and the [bilingual] staff who serve them is preferable to replacing these students with another group of students to address the identical issues of diversity and achievement."

"We thought it was a benign statement," Wennerlund said. "We came up with some basic issues we wanted them to consider. Tim and the staff wouldn't have signed off on anything that was racist or controversial."

While refusing to discuss his visit to Burroughs, Stewart said board members divide up the district's schools and visit all of them at least once a year. Stewart said some board members announce their visits, but he typically chooses not to do so to better understand how a parent or another visitor would perceive the school.

"I visit a lot of schools, and each school community is different and each school is unique and you discover that when you go out and visit," Stewart said.

He added, "The challenge for us right now is to take a look at all these schools in southwest and look at integration and what are the perceptions about [potential changes at] these schools that people have that are valid and those that aren't based on reality."

Tom Madden, the school board chairman, and Jackie Turner, the district's placement specialist, met with Burroughs parents Monday night to discuss the restructuring process. The meeting wasn't connected to the recent disciplinary actions, but parents talked about Cadotte before and after the meeting.

"He's an amazing principal; he isn't a racist," Shannon Johnston de Castillo said. "He should be in this school."

She said parents wish the district had consulted the school community about phasing out the program for Spanish-speaking students. "They get labeled as not wanting minority kids here, but I don't think that's the issue," she said.

Madden told parents that Burroughs' program for Spanish speakers was too small to be sustainable and couldn't be expanded because of space limitations at the school.

"We've got it from a resource standpoint at too many sites," Madden said. "We've been told by the district's [English Language Learner] team that we need a minimum-size program [at each site]. We're trying to take that into account."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395