Home-buyers shop schools as carefully as real estate

Tennis courts and parks are scattered throughout this upper-middle-class Minneapolis suburb, where supermarkets sell everything from imported Italian vinegar to Minnesota wild rice.

But an attraction much more basic than these has drawn families to Edina through the years.

''The one thing that swayed us to come here was the schools,'' says Mary McNaught, whose family of six moved from New York to Edina more than three years ago.

''I flew out several times from New York to look for houses and scouted several neighborhoods,'' she says. ''We settled on Edina because here, I was told, the schools are the best.''

Schools play a major role - probably the largest role - in where middle-class families with school-age children decide to buy houses, according to real estate agents, relocation experts, city planners, and parents who recently moved into the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Naturally, other factors - the appearance of the neighborhood, the crime rate , whether the streets are well maintained, how close the home is to public transportation, and the condition and style of the home - also affect the decision. But, says relocation specialist Robert Johnson, ''If parents have children, schools are definitely at the top of the list of their concerns when they buy a house.

''When I'm dealing with families, particularly the out-of-towners, I get every conceivable question about the schools,'' adds Mr. Johnson, who works for Eberhardt Real Estate Companies, a large real estate firm in the area.

''They want t know about the racial balance, the school activities, whether their kids will be bused, how tough the teachers are, what the school discipline policy and the curriculum are like, if the district provides programs for gifted students.'' Only after these questions have been answered to their satisfaction - and after some have visited the schools to talk with counselors and teachers and to observe classes - are most willing to sign a purchase agreement, Johnson says.

This was true for the McNaughts. Mary McNaught says it was hard for her family to leave Guilderland, a suburb of Albany, N.Y.

Their home was on six acres of land with a trout stream. And the Guilderland schools, which drew a mix of children from working-class, rural, and professional families, provided their children with a solid academic program that included everything from elementary school art to enriched high school physics.

''Guilderland had teachers who for the most part cared about the kids,'' Mary McNaught explained. ''We came out here looking for something to match it.''

Mrs. McNaught says her family likes ''wide open spaces'' and, all else being equal, would have preferred a house in the country. But they concentrated their house-hunting efforts in Twin City suburbs largely because real estate people and Donald McNaught's colleagues at the University of Minnesota advised them that the schools there would be better.

During one trip to the Twin Cities, Mrs. McNaught spoke with guidance counselors and principals in several school districts about the availability of accelerated classes and if it was possible for one of her sons, who would be entering the 11th grade, to take college courses for high school credit if the regular high school ones weren't challenging enough. She asked about music classes, because the McNaughts' four children all play instruments, and about the students' average scores on standardized tests.

The counselors mailed the McNaughts brochures describing the schools. School districts are as eager to attract good students as parents are to find good schools. Finances are part of the motivation.

Another couple who chose Minneapolis, Cyndie and Norris Tidwell, did so precisely for its diversity and the ethnic mix in the schools. The Tidwells moved from Clearwater, Fla., to Minneapolis in 1979 when Norris Tidwell accepted a job as a systems analyst at Honeywell. They have three children: two boys, who were in the sixth grade when they moved, and an adopted daughter, who was in the fourth grade.

The family wanted to find a racially integrated school district because their daughter is black and because, says Cyndie Tidwell, her family is ''committed to ethnic diversity. . . . We didn't want one that was integrated just in the legal sense, but one with a significant proportion of ethnic minorities.''

Of course, not every family shares Mrs. Tidwell's goals. Minneapolis city and school officials say their efforts to attract and hold on to families is sometimes hindered by real estate firms that steer families from Minneapolis. ''We know it happens,'' comments Minneapolis School Board chairman Joy Davis, whose husband is a real estate broker. She thinks some brokers advise clients not to buy in Minneapolis because they are uninformed. This concern was behind the Minneapolis school district's decision to hold an open house last spring to give real estate people a chance to ask questions and tour schools. Representatives from five of the largest firms showed up, and more tours are planned for agents this fall. Similar open houses have been held in several suburban school districts.

When school officials recently learned that Dayton-Hudson Corporation, a Minneapolis-based retailer, expected to transfer about 250 people from Detroit to Minneapolis, several sent brochures to an area relocation specialist who would be working with some of the families.

''We hope we'll pick up a few families this way,'' says Virginia Moll, communications coordinator for the suburban Hopkins school district.

School officials say they hope that distributing more information will help families make more intelligent decisions about where to buy homes. They recognize that parents will continue to feel the same as Julie Schmidt, who recently moved with her family to Hopkins.

''Schools were my main concern when I bought a house,'' she says, ''because my children are the most important thing in my life.''

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