Melissa Krull is facing a firestorm of fury from Eden Prairie parents. And the school superintendent knows it.

In recent weeks, parents have picketed, petitioned and publicly denounced her leadership. Normally quiet school board meetings attended by few have turned into standing-room-only shouting matches.

At issue is a plan, championed by Krull, to reassign 1,100 Eden Prairie students to different schools to balance the community's increasing diversity. Unlike most school districts that put the decision in the hands of board members, the final call in Eden Prairie rests with Krull.

Her decision, expected within a few weeks, and fate are being watched in other metro-area districts facing similar demographic changes.

Krull, a soft-spoken former special-education teacher who has led the district for nine years, said, "It can't be about popularity; it has to be about the kids."

Parents like Debbie Brandt see it differently.

"She needs to go," Brandt said. "I would like to see us get different leaders with the board and the superintendent because neither are doing their job. They play games, they're not honest, they're not transparent and they don't care about the majority of the community."

Krull has made divisive choices before in Eden Prairie, a high-achieving southwest suburban district with 9,700 students. Changes at the district's intermediate school two years ago incensed some parents to the point of calling for a reduction in Krull's contract renewal.

The latest flap has thrust the self-described introvert into the limelight after shying away from attention, an approach that some parents and the local newspaper have criticized.

"She's a fairly private person as far as interacting with the community and media. And that's become sort of an albatross around her and the school board's neck," said Charlie Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "I think what she's trying to do is for the good for all students, but she's in a firestorm there."

Rise to the top

Krull, a St. Paul native, became a single mom in 2002 when she adopted her now 8-year-old daughter, Helen, from Guatemala. That year, she moved from assistant superintendent to the top spot after the school board abruptly ousted the current leader. She began working for Eden Prairie schools in 1984 as a teacher.

In the top spot, the 51-year-old has led two successful referendums, started a Spanish-language immersion program and ramped up technology. In the past two years, Latino, black, low-income, and English-language learner students have made gains in math and reading test scores from 15 to 17 percent.

"Under the superintendent's leadership, we've seen nothing but an improvement in test score results," said Glenn Singleton, CEO and president of Pacific Educational Group, who has consulted for the district on equity issues for five years. He called Krull "a bold an courageous and really forward-thinking leader. She's a national leader in this work."

David Metzen, director of the state's Office of Higher Education, said, "In the world of superintendents and education, she's held in high-esteem and well-respected."

In a recent study by Eden Prairie's teachers' union, 70 percent of teachers gave a poor rating to administrators for their relationship with them. But union president Angie Roesner said she thinks most teachers generally support Krull.

"I've always considered her a visionary person," said Roesner, who's known Krull her entire career. "She continues not to always take the easy road in decisions."

Last week Krull, clutching her BlackBerry, strolled through Eden Prairie High School, one of the state's largest with about 3,000 students. She makes a point to visit schools each week.

"We support you," Spanish teacher Anne Gaston said after a warm embrace. "Keep your head up."

Controversial changes

The support doesn't translate outwardly to many parents.

A plan in 2007 to reconfigure elementary schools to hold grades K-6 was met with much resistance and tabled. The next year, parents deplored officials for their lack of communication and seeking input for starting "looping," a concept that kept students with a team of teachers for two years at the district's grade 5-6 school.

More than 400 parents signed a petition calling Krull not the "proper fit" and requesting her normally three-year contract be limited to one year. The school board ended up approving a three-year deal that expires in June 2012.

Similar complaints bubbled up in recent weeks from parents who are upset with proposed boundary changes, which Krull says are needed due to shifting demographics. Enrollment more than tripled since she her first teaching year, peaking at 11,000 students before falling a bit. It's also become more racially and economically diverse. The number of low-income students has doubled in five years.

Many low-income students attend one elementary school, resulting in a 33 percent gap between schools in the number of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch. New boundaries will reduce the isolation of low-income students, Krull said, and tackle the achievement gap.

Upset parents say they don't reject racial integration but rather the "radical change" of busing students from neighborhood schools to balance demographics.

That, coupled with moving fifth- and sixth-graders from an intermediate school into K-4 schools, isn't necessary, they say. Others contend Krull is showing favoritism to the Spanish immersion program, which won't be affected by changes and will expand in the former intermediate school.

"She's taken a healthy community and created division," said parent Caroline Zahller Nelson, a vocal opponent. "The voices of the well-educated stakeholders are ignored, and that has been the case repeatedly."

Decisions related to the two changes have split the school board. Unlike most districts, it only votes on policies, not day-to-day operating decisions.

But parents are lobbying board members with petitions, packing board meetings and vowing to vote down next fall's possible referendum.

Krull is holding firm for change.

"I'm very firm on my obligation to serve all students," she said. "We, as a collective, have a responsibility. I think the community is wrestling with that."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141