For the past decade, Tim Cadotte has been principal of one of the most successful elementary schools in Minneapolis.

Burroughs Community School students score well on standardized tests, and their parents are actively engaged as tutors and parent-staff site council members. Many of them sing his praises as a leader and educator.

That's why they were dumfounded when the School District relieved Cadotte of his duties Monday while it investigates a blow-up he had with School Board Member Chris Stewart, when Stewart dropped by the school and quickly leveled charges that Cadotte and the entire mostly white southwest neighborhood school are racist.

That allegation and the way it burst into view has thrust Cadotte into a controversy that encapsulates the challenges facing Minneapolis and many urban districts.

The district must downsize as enrollments and budgets decline. A draft plan to be released Tuesday will close schools and change boundaries, bus routes and academic programs, but will not close any high schools.

Burroughs' website said its parents are concerned about "serious restructuring" at southwest elementary schools with lower percentages of students of color. They predict the savings would be minimal and the disruption great.

That stance has led Stewart and some district officials to think the school doesn't share their vision for a more uniformly diverse district.

But friends of Cadotte, an openly gay father of two adopted children, said that if Stewart and the district want to take down a racist, they've got the wrong man.

"If you were to ask me to come up with anything negative about Tim Cadotte, I wouldn't know what to say," said Donna Amann, a retired principal who handpicked him for an assistant. "This whole thing is just unbelievable."

At an issues forum Thursday night at Washburn High School, Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson reiterated the district policy against discussing an ongoing disciplinary process.

As the night went on, however, Burroughs parents pushed back, with some speaking out of turn and asking if Stewart also would be disciplined. When Burroughs parent Angela Shifrin pleaded with Johnson to reinstate Cadotte, numerous audience members clapped.

"We have a fact-finding investigation underway," Johnson said. "We're bringing in someone from the outside to make sure it's objective."

Shifrin later said Cadotte has been at every single school event she has ever attended and conducts tours of the school.

"He's 1,000 percent dedicated to this school," she said.

Cadotte, 55, referred questions to lawyer Roger Aronson, who didn't return calls.

"My son constantly keeps asking me if I'm going to get fired," Cadotte said. "I'm just trying to focus on him not stressing out over this."

School, principal thrived

The man at the center of the storm started his teaching career in Minneapolis in 1984. He was teaching at West Center Academy, a largely black school on the North Side, when Amann selected him to be her "right hand" assistant principal in 1997. She said he clearly loved children, was organized and motivated, and had the trust of teachers, students, parents and administrators.

In 1999, he became Burroughs' principal. He, his family, and the school thrived.

He and longtime partner Patrick Burns own a home near the school. They adopted Jenia and Grecia Burns-Cadotte, both 15, from Russia seven years ago.

The boys attended Burroughs and are now freshmen at Washburn and Southwest high schools.

Burroughs parents say Cadotte works long days and rarely skips school events. He hosts an annual tea party for more than 100 volunteers.

The Minnesota Elementary School Principal's Association named Burroughs a 2007-08 Minnesota School of Excellence. It's one of 12 schools out of 81 in the district that met state testing benchmarks during the 2007-08 school year.

"They've really focused on academics and high standards," said Kip Wennerlund, co-chair of the staff-parent site council. "I'm not saying they don't elsewhere, but it's really obvious here."

Jackie Turner, the district's placement services director, said that starting four years ago, it became difficult to meet requests from families who wanted their kids at Burroughs.

"We started to see a trend of former private-school families choosing their neighborhood schools, and it was primarily Lake Harriet and Burroughs," she said.

According to the state Department of Education, Burroughs is roughly 72 percent white at a time when most Minneapolis schools are more than 50 percent nonwhite.

For years the school had a program for Spanish-speaking students. But the district has been phasing it out, saying it's too small to sustain -- another move parents and Cadotte resisted.

Argued over poster

Stewart showed up at Burroughs last week on a self-described "fact or fiction tour." Parents said he and Cadotte locked horns over a poster in a hallway. It outlined the school's support for rebuilding its program for Spanish-speaking students and opposed the reassignment of its students to other schools.

Stewart demanded that Cadotte remove the poster, calling it racist, and the two yelled at each other. Later, Cadotte was put on indefinite paid leave.

District spokesman Stan Alleyne said data practices law prevents the district from discussing pending discipline, but he said that Cadotte, in his 25 years with the district, has no prior discipline record.

Stewart is no stranger to controversy, and some say he can be tactless. Still, his supporters praise his commitment to equity. He cast the lone vote against closing five North Side schools in 2007.

Burroughs parents said their position was misinterpreted.

"You have the whole issue of this benign statement being miscast as racist," Wennerlund said. "Where I come from, those are fighting words. You really can't say anything worse to a white person than calling them a racist."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395