Eight years ago, the principal who would lead Washington County's gleaming new high school proclaimed it would excel at everything and fail at nothing.

"How are we going to define the 'East Ridge Way?' " Aaron Harper asked as he charged through the construction zone that would become East Ridge High School. "We don't want to be an average anything."

But over the past year, scandal has overshadowed that commitment to excellence, tarnishing the reputation of a sprawling 1,800-student campus built in one of the county's most affluent neighborhoods.

Harper, once the dynamic leader of the cutting-edge school, left his job in late 2014 after the district began investigating spending practices. Seven months later, criminal charges followed.

This summer, East Ridge was stripped of two years of football titles as punishment for playing an ineligible player.

A subsequent investigation by district officials found no additional violations. Yet as administrators try to persuade voters next month to approve another $152.8 million for schools that includes an expansion of East Ridge, criticism and controversy linger.

"What has been going on is so unfair to the kids, so unfair to the residents," said Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, a school board candidate who is leading a drive to defeat the November referendum. "When you have those kind of things going on at East Ridge, you've got to ask, 'Who's in charge of things there?' "

When it opened in August 2009, East Ridge was one of four new high schools in the Twin Cities promoted as a "school of the 21st century." Built for $95 million in south Woodbury, it came with impressive amenities, including five basketball courts, a two-story cafeteria atrium, a TV studio, a 938-seat auditorium, and a football stadium with "panoramic views" and college-capacity seating.

Out front was Harper, a hard-charging, 32-year-old former All-America college football player, science teacher and middle school principal. Harper said recently that he and the school's staff worked hard to establish the "East Ridge Way," forging an exemplary school with its own tradition and culture — right down to committees choosing carpet colors and types of pencils.

"He put his heart and soul into that school," said Mike Pendino, who resigned as football coach this summer. Harper, he said, was everywhere, from greeting students at the front door to wiping down cafeteria tables.

"Harper wanted to be great at everything — athletics, academically and the arts."

East Ridge delivered, winning awards in music, drama and academics. Its football team won conference and section titles, the robotics team captured a regional crown. Students won National Merit Scholarships and Scholars of Distinction awards.

But 2014 brought trouble. Harper abruptly resigned in November after the district revealed he was being investigated for undisclosed allegations. In January, details of alleged wrongdoing surfaced in district documents, and by June, Harper was charged with three counts of theft by swindle. Among the allegations: He tapped his school credit card and an office "slush fund" to spend thousands of dollars on personal items including vitamin drinks, steak knives and iTunes cards.

The allegations "show an arrogance" and "whatever he wanted he went and got," said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.

Within weeks, East Ridge's image took another hit. Activities Director Jon Hinzman resigned during a district investigation into player eligibility. In July, the school forfeited its 2013 and 2014 football victories and titles after it was determined the fast-rising program had played a star defensive lineman who didn't live at the address his family had given the district.

In August, amid a widening investigation into eligibility concerns, Pendino quit, calling the matter "a shame" for "everybody involved."

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said recently that administrators have since examined the eligibility of all players — past and present — and found no additional violations.

Ongoing controversy

While Harper declined to discuss the criminal case, his attorney, Peter Wold, said Harper "contends he always acted in good faith and never set out to enrich himself at the expense of the school district."

As for his record as principal, Harper said his leadership helped make East Ridge "the most successful" school in the district. "I am very proud of what the community has received and what the staff has done," he said.

But critics say Harper carried a banner for the school's "university" image, fueling claims that the district's two other high schools were being left behind.

Contributing to the animosity: the median annual income in the school's main attendance area stands at $143,000 — about twice that of the south side of Cottage Grove, which feeds the 1,600-student Park High School, and more than other Woodbury neighborhoods that feed into 1,700-student Woodbury High.

The school's choice location also invited criticism. East Ridge was built next to the sprawling Bielenberg Sports Center, one of the metro's largest athletic complexes.

"When people see that, it looks like we own all of this and we put all this money into one high school and let the other two go," Jacobus said. "It creates the feeling that East Ridge is treated differently."

Former school board member Jim Gelbmann said an attitude of entitlement emerged after the board voted to put East Ridge where it now sits. "I think it was a recipe for disaster," he said.

"Every principal wants their school to be the best," added Gelbmann, who resigned from the board in 2014. "But … Harper and the East Ridge community felt like they didn't have to abide by district policy. They were an entity unto themselves."

Whether the turmoil will have a bearing on the referendum is uncertain. The district is seeking taxpayer approval for an operating levy increase and two bond issues to help erase inequities among schools, Jacobus said.

"We've struggled to make sure people see us as one school district," said Jacobus, who acknowledged that East Ridge's amenities have influenced public opinion.

As Harper awaits a February trial date, East Ridge moves on. A new principal was hired in April and a new activities director started work in August. Football fortunes, too, are turning.

Earlier this month, 5,000 fans packed the East Ridge stadium to watch the home team take on crosstown Woodbury for city football supremacy. Early chants of "Cheaters! Cheaters!" came from Woodbury students, but East Ridge prevailed — 31-21 — to take a 7-1 record into postseason play.

Rick Foy, whose daughter attends East Ridge, said despite past problems, the school remains strong. Another parent, Nancy Lund­quist, who was on a committee that helped hire the new principal, described East Ridge as a "shining star" in the district.

Said school board chairman Ron Kath: "Let's not forget some of the good work that Aaron did in that school."

Still, some say the "East Ridge Way" resonates less today.

Mary Ryerse, a booster, said parents and students can't change the past but can forge a new image. No better example exists, she said, than when football players crossed the field at a recent game to shake hands with an opposing coach.

"What a great way to show publicly that they're about doing it the right way," she said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

James Walsh • 651-925-5041