The Robbinsdale School District faces a $5 million deficit. Two former Cooper High School coaches have been charged with sexual assault. An anti-levy group named the superintendent in a First Amendment rights suit, and now there's an online petition calling for his ouster.

"With some of these things, it's simply the stars lining up wrong for us," Superintendent Stan Mack said last week of a school year of headline-making incidents. Among them:

Cooper High School Principal Mike Favor sent a letter of apology to parents this month after he wrote a column in a school newsletter highlighting DFL Senate candidate Mike Ciresi. Favor said his comments, in which he called Ciresi "a great advocate of education," were not meant as a political endorsement.

A decision by the Court of Appeals in January upheld a 2006 ruling in which the Minnesota Department of Education found the Robbinsdale district in violation of state law because it was limiting special instruction services to disabled private-school students -- even though the district was found to have provided appropriate services for the third-grader in this particular case.

This fall, Eric Hawkins, a former assistant soccer coach at Cooper, was charged with two counts of felony sexual assault involving a 14-year-old who played for him in youth leagues.

Nathan Paul Antrim, a Cooper assistant girls hockey coach, was charged with having intercourse with a 16-year-old player.

Wading through the quagmire is Mack, who doesn't deny the pain the district is experiencing with budget cuts. But he insists that honesty, the integrity of a strong and talented teaching staff and a determined school board will ultimately "overcome everything."

His sentiments are echoed not only by the school board chairwoman, but also by the president of the local teachers union.

"We continue to have many positive things," said Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers. "But what mechanism really allows the community to see all the phenomenal things happening in our classrooms?"

Eckhoff said the union is "looking to our leadership" to get that message across. As a parent whose son graduated a year ago from Armstrong High School, Eckhoff said he questions the legitimacy of an online petition seeking Mack's dismissal -- a two-month-old petition that has garnered only 11 signatures, with the participants remaining anonymous.

Patsy Green, the school board chairwoman, said what's happened in Robbinsdale amounts to a "string of bad luck," but adds, "We were ripe for the storm."

She and Eckhoff both criticized the methods of an anti-levy group, whose phone-calling tactics were described last November by Mack as "racist, without conscience and untruthful."

Jackie Wells, a Golden Valley parent who supported the referendum, lamented the hiring of the two assistant coaches, both of whom were screened through standard background checks. Hawkins, of Elk River, had no criminal history and Antrim, of Rogers, had nothing in his background that would hint of sexual assault.

"It's unfortunate, for the students involved," Wells said. "But I don't consider it a Stan Mack or school district failure."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419