In search of new partners to help it meet state guidelines for racial integration, North St. Paul schools are finding the dance cards of most other districts already filled.

And if the district can't find other school systems willing to fill the void left when it withdrew from the East Metro Integration District (EMID) last month, it could lose $1.6 million in state money.

Officials from Stillwater and Mahtomedi -- the two districts that are "racially isolated" in comparison with the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district -- said they have no immediate plans to pull out of the East Metro district.

Forest Lake has had only casual discussions with North St. Paul officials, and Mounds View Superintendent Dan Hoverman said his district has not been contacted.

As the North St. Paul district grew more diverse in recent years, officials felt they could serve more students more efficiently by working on integration issues outside the East Metro district.

"The key piece is if the partner or partners come through," North St. Paul integration coordinator Tom Howley said. "We may have several districts that join us in the collaboration. You can only go so far with planning."

Howley said North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale has already been talking with several districts, but he declined to reveal them.

Forest Lake director of teaching and learning Linda Madsen said the two districts' superintendents have exchanged voice-mails about being part of a collaborative.

"We're interested in hearing what they're doing," Madsen said. "We've looked at EMID in the past, and we're always looking at integration issues."

But Forest Lake, which is not currently part of the East Metro district, might be an easier sell than Stillwater or Mahtomedi.

Mahtomedi Assistant Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver said the district will wait and see what North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale is planning before making any decisions about its future with the East Metro district.

And Stillwater integration director Eric Anderson said a new collaborative is "not on our radar screen."

While those districts could be part of more than one integration collaborative, their positions put North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale in a bit of a bind as it tries to pitch plans without knowing where it might find a partner.

One possibility Howley mentioned was a magnet school, where the district would operate a school and receive funds from other districts that send students.

"There would probably be some new interest from people who haven't attended the EMID schools," he said.

That idea has drawn heat from parents who say the district's new idea is a hastily-conceived replacement for the East Metro district, which essentially uses two magnet schools to draw children from its 10 member districts.

Howley has heard the criticism, and he knows it will continue. For now, he's just asking for patience, even as it's clear North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale has to move quickly.

"I have no doubt they'll put together a systematic plan and figure it out," Anderson said. "They've got a lot of work ahead of them."

Ben Goessling • 651-298-1546