An Inver Grove Heights charter school where state officials say more than a dozen teachers lack proper licenses has taken its battle to court.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Education told Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) last month that they would recommend withholding $1.4 million in public funding from the school as a result of licensure violations, according to a lawsuit filed by the school Thursday in Ramsey County District Court.
But TiZA claims that state officials have refused to provide the school with public records related to the state's investigation of the alleged violations, and that without them the school can't properly defend itself as it appeals the decision.
In the lawsuit, TiZA and the school's executive director, Asad Zaman, are asking the court to order the state to hand over the records and impose a civil penalty against the Education Department.
The skirmish comes during a time of intense scrutiny for the K-8 school, which has about 480 students -- most of them Muslim -- at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed suit against the school, arguing that TiZA has violated the Constitution by crossing the line between religion and public schools.
In March, state officials made an unannounced visit to TiZA, where they found that 23 out of 35 teachers lacked appropriate licenses, according to state records that the Star Tribune obtained through court filings made by the school. In some cases, aides or paraprofessionals appeared to be leading classes that should have been taught by teachers, while other teachers had expired licenses or none at all, the records said.
Department officials gave the school time to fix any licensure problems, and TiZA said this spring that much of the confusion stemmed from misspelled names and other clerical errors that weren't the school's fault.
But state officials notified the school on June 1 that 14 staff members at TiZA were still out of compliance, and they would recommend withholding $1.4 million in student aid and grants, court documents said. The penalty is calculated partly based on the number of teachers involved and the amount of state aid the school receives.
'Significant' projected hit
A seven-digit aid deduction would be a "significant" loss for any charter school, TiZA spokesman Darin Broton said Thursday, but he did not say whether a penalty that large would effectively shut down the school.
The state estimated earlier this year that the school would get more than $4 million in aid for the 2008-09 school year.
TiZA appealed the decision to state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who held a hearing on the matter July 7. The school said that Seagren has not yet issued a ruling, but if she upholds the penalty, TiZA could turn to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The department has already withheld about $125,000 from the school, Broton said, adding that the deduction could be illegal given that the school hasn't exhausted the appeals process.
Seagren and the Education Department were named as defendants along with TiZA in the ACLU case.
State officials have declined to answer many questions about the school in recent months, citing pending litigation and the department's ongoing investigation of the school. In a written statement Thursday, the department said it takes seriously its duty to follow data practices law.
The department has deducted public funding from a school for teacher-licensure violations once before in the past five years. The school, LoveWorks Academy for the Performing Arts, lost $31,000 in aid in January, though state officials said at first they would withhold more than $320,000 from the Golden Valley school.Star Tribune staff writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.