Anoka-Hennepin board challengers mum on sexual orientation policyby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Gay rights advocates and others hoping to see the Anoka-Hennepin School District get rid of its sexual orientation curriculum policy likely won't be able to count on a new school board to overturn it.
Only one candidate running for school board this fall has come out against the policy, and he happens to be the lone board member who had already opposed it. Scott Wenzel, of Brooklyn Park, has no opponents in seeking his fourth four-year term. The rest of the six-member board is against changing the policy.
Three people have filed to challenge the other two incumbents seeking re-election — Tom Heidemann and Marci Anderson. One of the challengers said he had no position on the issue, and the other wasn't ready to discuss her views on the policy. A third challenger did not return calls. The deadline for candidates to file was Aug. 16.
The Anoka-Hennepin district's sexual orientation curriculum policy, also called the "neutrality policy," has been at the center of a lawsuit two civil rights groups filed against the district this summer.
The policy says sexual orientation topics aren't part of the curriculum, and it instructs teachers to remain neutral on the subject if it comes up in school. But gay students and advocacy groups say it acts as a gag order for teachers and has led to a hostile atmosphere for students who are gay or are perceived to be gay.
SOMETHING 'NOT WORKING'
Coon Rapids retiree Beverly Holmstrom had planned to run for school board to oppose the policy — until she found out the incumbent in the district where she lives is Wenzel.
"I didn't want to be on the school board but I wanted this topic brought up because I see so much denial about it," Holmstrom said in an interview.
After a phone conversation with Wenzel, Holmstrom withdrew her name and the two vowed to work together to raise awareness about the policy, she said. Recent suicides in the school district, which some students and parents have linked to bullying, caught Holmstrom's attention, and she remembered how her own children were once bullied.
"My kids suffered too from being a little different," she said, adding that she plans to speak out about the policy within her retirement community. "I just want to be out there as an older woman and say, 'This has to stop.'"
Mary Nelson, of Blaine, said the suicides and the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights also played into her decision to run for school board.
"It seems to me that there's something that's not working there, and I believe I could help make changes to bring respect back to the school district," she said.
But Nelson, who has been involved with the DFL Party in Anoka County, declined to discuss her views on the sexual orientation curriculum policy.
Nelson and Randy Kolb, also of Blaine, are challenging Marci Anderson, who is seeking her second term. Kolb did not return repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Anderson said she thinks the sexual orientation curriculum policy should stay in place for now, especially given that teachers and staff are receiving more training and clarification on the policy. Meanwhile, board members are listening to members of the public, she said.
"We really do seem to be a community divided," Anderson said. "We need to take in all the information and listen to everyone, because we represent everyone. I'm so committed to seeing this out."
Heidemann, the board chairman, has also said the policy should stay in place. His opponent in the November election, Darin Rorman of Ramsey, said he has no position on the policy itself.
But Rorman, who has a son in the district, said he thinks the board needs to reexamine the district's anti-bullying policies. He said his insight as a single parent might be appreciated.
"What I'd like to see happen is to get to the root of the problem," he said. "I think their no-tolerance policy for getting into a scuff doesn't always fix the problem. A lot of things happen out of school."
HELPING THE CHALLENGERS
The Gay Equity Team, a group of parents, teachers and other community members, wants the district to drop its sexual orientation curriculum policy. The group is talking to each of the school board challengers and will urge them to oppose the policy, group member Laurie Olmon said.
Olmon, whose son attended the district, said she hopes the challengers will not only vow to change the policy, but will also work to improve teacher training on bullying and expand students' access to mental health services.
The bullying incidents that resulted in lawsuits indicate it's time for a change, she said.
"To see this happening is disheartening," she said. "We need some new people."
A conservative parents group, the Parents Action League, has urged the board to keep the sexual orientation curriculum policy. Group organizers declined to comment on the school board elections, citing the pending lawsuit.
Besides the question of whether to re-elect three members of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, voters in the district also must decide whether to approve several levy requests.
Three questions will be on the ballot: one to renew an existing levy, one to provide money for technology and one to prevent teacher cuts and hold down class size beginning in 2013. The district said the third is needed in case the state fails to approve inflationary funding increases for K-12 schools.
If the general operating levy isn't renewed, the district would have to cut $48 million from its budget starting in the 2013-2014 school year.
Public meetings on the levy requests are scheduled for Sept. 15 at Champlin Park High School and Sept. 19 at Coon Rapids High School.