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Nearly one-third of students in the Minnetonka Public Schools do not live there, drawn instead by aggressive marketing, creative programming and paths made possible by the state’s open enrollment law.

The district’s success in attracting students, and avoiding budget strife, has been called “the Minnetonka Miracle” by Superintendent Dennis Peterson. But it also has brought a less-than-honorable mention in the school desegregation lawsuit that was the subject of a Minnesota Supreme Court hearing last week.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015, accuses Minnetonka of having advertised for students in neighboring districts undergoing “politically charged boundary adjustments,” and then drawing those who tend to be white and less likely to qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

District officials say they market to families regardless of race and income. Yet, as Monday’s open enrollment application deadline approaches, recent trends show that Minnetonka is likely to see a pool of incoming students who will be whiter and more affluent than those in the districts they leave.

That is not the intent of the $30,000 advertising effort, JacQueline Getty, the district’s communications director, said last week. She said families of all nationalities, cultures and backgrounds send kids to Minnetonka based on the district’s Chinese and Spanish language immersion programs, computer coding in the elementary schools and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate options, plus other offerings. “We do not have control over who open enrolls,” she said.

Getty took issue with attention focused on Minnetonka, noting neighboring Hopkins Public Schools also pulls 24 percent of its kids from other districts.

But students who cross boundaries into Hopkins tend to be more diverse, with about 50 percent of last year’s open enrollment students being white and about 30 percent black, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state enrollment data. In Minnetonka, about 80 percent of open enrollment students are white, and about 12 percent Asian.

About 7 percent of the students who cross into Minnetonka qualify for free or reduced price lunches, compared with about 60 percent of students traveling to Hopkins.

Families that choose Minnetonka are “just like us,” Peterson said. He notes, too, that the funding that accompanies the students has allowed the district to go 12 years without making budget cuts.

Within the community, however, some oppose the district’s open enrollment practices. Peterson also has been challenged on a point he’s made locally — that the 3,400-plus students who now cross boundaries into Minnetonka are state aid revenue generators only, and not a draw on local taxes.

Property tax issues

Last September, the Star Tribune reported that a growing number of suburban students were opting out of their district schools and going elsewhere for programs and services they and their families want.

Eden Prairie parents hired a bus driver to take their kids to Minnetonka, the newspaper reported. It also quoted state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, saying school choice options are invaluable to families, and Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who has studied how open enrollment and charter schools combine to weaken integration, saying that the “patterns of segregation are getting worse.”

The article triggered considerable talk within the Minnetonka community — with more than 260 comments on one Nextdoor.com thread — due in part to comments made by Robert Porter, a retired finance specialist who worked at the state Department of Education. Porter noted that changes enacted at the state level had shifted an increased share of the costs of educating nonresident students to local property taxes.

Last week, at the Star Tribune’s request, the state Education Department reviewed and confirmed that the rising number of open enrollment students in Minnetonka has resulted in an increase in the district’s general education levy. Since 2015, the number of open enrollment “pupil units” rose by 1,087, the department reported, and each will cost district taxpayers an additional $2,077 this year. Apply the state’s weighting formula, however, and the cost of a secondary student rises to $2,492, Porter said.

Peterson, however, has downplayed the impact of open enrollment on the district’s tax levies by stating that the state aid that the district collects for each of those students is more than enough to cover the costs to educate them. As such, any property taxes collected, he said, are for the benefit of the district’s resident students.

In a November e-mail exchange between Porter and the superintendent, Peterson held firm to his no-taxes-go-to-nonresidents position, while Porter continued to challenge it. Last week, the state Department of Education said it was aware of Peterson’s argument, but lacked the data to judge it.

At its limit?

Porter said he likes open enrollment, but believes Minnetonka overdoes it.

Jennifer Fortner, a parent at Deephaven Elementary, agrees. She had three children attend kindergarten at Deephaven, and saw the class sizes grow from 17 to 20 to 21 — with the most recent being four years ago. This year, she said, a neighbor told her that her Deephaven kindergartner was in a class of 25 kids.

“There is not a teacher on earth who could say you could deliver the same level of quality to a class of 25 as to a class of 17,” Fortner said.

Getty said that Deephaven’s three largest kindergarten classrooms have 21, 24 and 25 students, respectively. The district has deployed a full-day aide to assist the teacher in each of them, she said. Open enrollment students give the district the financial resources to make those adjustments, Peterson has said.

But signs are Minnetonka is nearing the limit on how many students it brings in.

As of last week, the open enrollment count was up again this school year — by 205 students. And next year?

“We are nearing capacity in all of our schools, and therefore, we do not expect significant, if any, growth [in 2018-19],” Getty said Friday. “We are looking to maintain our current numbers going forward.”

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109 MaryJo Webster • 612-673-1789