Partisan divide consumes district, students and parents

Partisan divide consumes district, students and parents

(Minn.) If you think partisan politics has gotten out of hand in the nation’s capital, consider what’s gone on in the schools of an affluent Minneapolis suburb over the past year or so.

Edina Public Schools was sued by parents after administrators shutdown a conservative student group. A board member drew an internal investigation after she publicly criticized a blog posted by an English teacher.

And just last week, teachers disclosed ongoing threats from community activists who believe the district is trying to “indoctrinate” students into a liberal political agenda.

Tom Connell, president of the local teachers union, summed things up pretty well at a board meeting last week.

“This past year has been intense, emotional, ugly and at times profoundly disillusioning for many of us,” he said. “We feel strongly that it is time for all of us to find a way forward.”

Edina, which Money magazine touted just two years ago as one of the best places in the country to live, boasts a median income of close to $90,000 and the average home price of close to $480,000.

Its school are also among the best in the state, although like many communities across the U.S., perhaps not as good as they once were—which is where the current trouble began.

Last fall, as voters prepared to choose among 12 candidates to fill four seats on the school board, district households were mailed a politically-charged pamphlet focused on the decline in performance of Edina students. The mailer came from a right-leaning think tank and quickly became fodder for the local news media and a focal point of the campaign.

The report, published by the Center of the American Experiment, seized on a strategic plan promulgated by the school district in 2013 that set out a number of goals, many of which centered on social and cultural concerns.

Staff should be trained, for instance, to support academic achievement “for all learners from diverse cultures, incomes and ability levels.” There needed to be more outreach to parents and families “with a focus on race, lower socio-economic status and cultural diversity.”

The plan also said the district needed to “recruit, hire and retain high-quality, racially conscious teachers and administrators.”

The author of the report from the center, an attorney and former columnist at the Star Tribune, chastised the district’s leaders for using precious school resources and time to “indoctrinate student in left-wing political orthodoxies.”

The author said traditional education at Edina schools “are taking a backseat to an ideological crusade.”

At least in part because of the center’s work, two incumbents were tossed off the board in the November election and three Republican-endorsed candidates were elected.

That was seemingly big news because Edina is part of Hennepin County where the population is close to 80 percent white and about 63 percent registered Democrats.

But there is also tension as the county is also dealing with a growing number of immigrants from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Somali and Central America.

Thus, the election didn’t resolve much.

Only a few weeks later, a group of high school students refused to stand during the national anthem at a Veteran’s Day ceremony. Another group of students, members of the Young Conservative Club, denounced the protest on social media provoking a school-consuming war of words that degraded into name-calling and worse.

Edina High officials decided to revoke the conservative club’s authorization, which prompted the federal civil rights suit from some of their parents.

The suit was settled in March, although it unclear over what terms.

Meanwhile, emotions continued to boil.

In February, one of the high school’s English teachers posted a blog to a private Facebook page for Edina parents that urged support for teaching students about racial and social justice issues.

The post drew a lot of attention, including from the district’s vice chair, who posted her criticism of the teacher’s opinion. That drew protest from other parents and a formal complaint to the board, which, by policy required an independent investigation.

Earlier this month, the board met in closed session to get the results of the review and reported out publicly that no action would be taken. The matter was closed.

Political turmoil in the district, however, has not ended.

Last week, the Star Tribune, reported that Edina teachers packed the school board meeting to complain about threats they received since the controversy began last fall.

One note told a teacher to “do society a favor and kill yourself.” Another profanity-laced e-mail warned “I will do what it takes to get you fired.”

The board chairman tried to appease the teachers by saying the board hadn’t done enough to stand behind them but Connell told the paper more needs to be done.

“Teaching is hard enough as it is and no educator should be attacked for doing their job,” he said.

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