After surviving an electoral challenge to its open-enrollment practices, Minnetonka Public Schools now is facing scrutiny from the state Department of Education.

Superintendent Dennis Peterson has been ordered to supply documents showing Minnetonka is complying with the state law that allows districts to accept students from outside their attendance boundaries. Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker asked for the materials by Dec. 13.

For years, Minnetonka has aggressively pursued nonresident students and the revenue they bring — so much so that 37.5% of this year’s elementary students live outside the district.

Some parents have argued that the school system has taken the practice too far, and this year, four political newcomers opposed to what they see as overcrowding in the schools launched bids to unseat three incumbents. The group came up short, but the campaigns marked the first major challenge to Peterson’s enrollment policies.

The state has been spurred to action after receiving evidence showing the district accepts nonresident students on a first-come, first-served basis, and without conducting lotteries. The lottery system ensures every family, not just go-getters attuned to the district’s practices, has a fair shot.

Peterson has countered that the district does not hold lotteries because demand has never exceeded grade-level capacity by the state’s Jan. 15 open-enrollment application deadline. He also invited Ricker to “come and tour the schools and ask any additional questions she would like to ask in person,” said JacQueline Getty, the district’s spokeswoman.

Ricker will meet with Minnetonka’s superintendent to discuss this issue, Wendy Hatch, the Education Department spokeswoman, said about the agency’s next step.

The lottery issue is paramount for an Education Department dedicated to seeing that all students have equal access to a great public education. But the department has other concerns, too.

In her letter to Peterson dated Nov. 22, Ricker took issue with the district saying that it gives priority to children enrolled in its preschool programs. Ricker said that the only nonresident students Minnetonka could give greater weight to under the law would be the siblings of currently enrolled students and the children of district staff members.

Getty told the Star Tribune that she erred when she made the statement about preschoolers during her annual enrollment report to the school board Oct. 3. She said the district simply encourages those families to get their kindergarten applications in early to better their chances of landing their top choice of a school or a language program.

But a review of her enrollment presentations reveals the listing of preschoolers among those students prioritized by the district was included not just this year, but last year, too.

Ricker also addressed a facet of the district’s open-enrollment strategy that is unusual in the world of hard-and-fast deadlines: Minnetonka begins adding nonresidents to its future kindergarten lists years before they are ready to start school.

Steady pipeline

The Star Tribune received a copy of an October e-mail exchange between the mother of a toddler and one of the district’s open-enrollment contacts in which the mother stated she knew of a neighbor whose young child was on Minnetonka’s list of future kindergartners and hoped she could add her son, too.

“We would love for him to be able to attend your schools!” the mother wrote.

The staffer replied that she was happy to add the child, and added that while the move would not guarantee the boy a spot in the district, it would serve as “a place holder for your initial date of contact.”

“Initial date of contact” is not a term covered in the state’s open-enrollment statute.

Getty was asked if that was the same as an application date — significant in a first-come, first-served system — and she replied that if the family later filled out an application in the year before kindergarten it would have a better chance of getting its school and language of choice “as they would be higher-up on the open enrollment list.”

Ricker told Peterson in the Nov. 22 letter that families who apply for kindergarten years before their child is of kindergarten age cannot be weighted more heavily than those who apply at the Jan. 15 deadline.

Two neighboring districts, Hopkins and Eden Prairie, conduct lotteries after the Jan. 15 enrollment deadline. Eden Prairie’s is limited to the kindergarten class at Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion, the only place where it has more applicants than available spaces, said Brett Johnson, a district spokesman.

Getty said that nonresident families apply to the district, and not to a particular school or language program, although they are asked for their preferences.

She acknowledged, too, that the time may come when all nonresident families who apply by the Jan. 15 deadline cannot be accommodated, and a lottery would be required.

“We are not there at this time,” Getty said.

That despite Peterson telling the school board on Oct. 3 that he turned away 200 to 250 applicants this year, plus a large number a year ago.