Supporters of a $121.7 million referendum for Eastern Carver County Schools are concerned that referendum opponents — including some who live outside the district — are trying to defeat the measure at the polls in November by linking it to the district's equity program.

Previous referendums in 2015 and 2013 passed by wide margins. But this year's funding request is larger and more controversial, said Superintendent Clint Christopher.

"We haven't had organized 'No' groups in the past," he said.

Members of the "Vote No" group also claim that district leaders are deceiving taxpayers about the referendum's true cost, inflating enrollment projections and overstating the need for more classroom space.

"It's outrageous that this district is conning — I wish I could come up with another word, but I feel that that's what this is — its citizens into passing an unnecessary referendum," Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen, a former legislator, recently told the Victoria City Council.

Much of the controversy swirls around a video posted in September on YouTube that called the district's equity efforts — which have the goal of ensuring that all students have an equal chance for success, regardless of their background — "a toxic agenda" that benefits Muslims and students of color at the expense of white, Christian and Jewish students.

The video connects the equity program to the referendum, though district officials say they have nothing to do with each other and that the equity program will proceed regardless of the referendum's outcome.

Of the four people who speak in the video, two are unnamed parents and the other two, Julie Quist and Don Huizenga, are conservative activists who do not live in the district (though Huizenga owns property there). The video doesn't mention that neither Quist nor Huizenga is a district resident.

Equity is a particularly sensitive issue in the Eastern Carver district, where students of color have reported racist harassment in school. Christopher has apologized for the incidents and the district — which encompasses Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria — has intensified its equity efforts.

The district has ignored parents' "grave concerns" about "how the children of Eastern Carver County could be harmed" by equity efforts, says Quist, who lives in Nicollet County and used to work for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, in the video. "They're not being outwardly transparent about their personal political agendas."

School Board Chairman Tim Klein said he's been contacted by voters confused by the messages. "The video is basically propaganda out to foment fear and division," he said. "Most people get that."

The Vote No group has a Facebook page and a website, and members of the group have spoken in public meetings. They issued a statement in response to several requests by the Star Tribune for comment that read in part: "Equity treats children differently in order to level the playing field. We fundamentally reject this socialist ideology."

Zach Saueressig of Chaska, a parent who supports the referendum, said he sees "so much cynicism and anger" among opponents. "They think the worst of people," he said.

Dispute over figures

The Eastern Carver district's equity initiative so far has involved replacing a staff equity coordinator with a higher-level equity director, hiring a consultant to conduct an equity audit of the district, forming an equity advisory council and arranging for administrators to attend equity training.

It's intended to benefit all students, said Keith Brooks, the equity director.

"It's not taking from white people and giving to people of color," he said, but rather learning about ways that students of color might be held back by the system.

Some parents were upset by a survey the equity consultant e-mailed to parents, staff and students, which included questions about race and gender identity. District officials say the survey was optional and that the sensitive questions went only to high school students, but they also acknowledged that "communication regarding the survey could have been more clear."

The referendum package includes funds to build a new school and bus barn, reduce class sizes and maintain current programs, and also improve security and technology. If it passes, the district would receive $121.7 million the first year, and the owner of an average home in the district valued at $350,000 would pay an additional $36 a month in taxes.

Some referendum opponents disagree on the figures, saying that the referendum actually would cost $211.7 million and the average homeowner would pay $50 a month more in taxes.

But Celi Haga, the district's communications director, said the $211.7 million figure represents the revenue over the 10 years that the levies would be applied. The district won't receive the 10-year funding in a lump sum and homeowners won't be taxed based on a lump sum, she said. The district's referendum numbers reflect standard school district procedure, she said.

Referendum opponents also charge the district with inflating enrollment expectations, noting that the district annually experiences a net loss of students through open enrollment. Those are school-age students who live in the district and opt to attend private schools or public schools outside the district.

But the overall number of students who attend Eastern Carver County Schools has grown in the last five years by about 400 to almost 9,700 this year, because Carver County is gaining residents. Enrollment is projected to increase in the district by 1,400 over the next five years and 60% by 2040.