Fresh controversy is swirling around the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy after the revelation that an Islamic nonprofit with ties to the Inver Grove Heights charter school paid for a Minnesota congressman's pilgrimage to Mecca.
State education officials last year investigated a substitute teacher's allegations that the public charter school promoted Islam in the classroom. The officials determined no laws had been broken, but they recommended the school modify its Friday communal prayers and provide after-school busing at different times for students who were not participating in religious activities.
The public spotlight has not eased. TiZA is now involved in two lawsuits: The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the school, and TiZA has sued the state Education Department.
Questions also remain over how the school operates, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
"I have deep concerns that we have a religious institution and a public school that seem to be way too close to each other," he said.
The latest twist came last week, when the Minnesota Republican Party called for a congressional investigation into Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison's 2008 pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip to the Saudi Arabian holy city was paid for by the Muslim American Society (MAS) of Minnesota, Ellison's office confirmed. The Muslim American Society shares space with TiZA at its Inver Grove Heights campus, and its Property Holding Corp. received about $360,000 from the state for renting the space to TiZA during the 2005-06 school year.
Asad Zaman, the school's executive director, also accompanied Ellison on his 16-day trip, Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said.
The Muslim American Society of Minnesota is not required to make its finances public since it's a religious organization. But according to the 2007 tax filing for its holding company, the company "receives rent from government agency and donates to MAS of MN (Muslim American Society of Minnesota)."
In 2007, those grants to MAS totaled $550,000, according to tax filings.
Darin Broton, a TiZA spokesman, said the school hasn't paid rent to the society since early 2007, when the school property was transferred to the Minnesota Education Trust. The nonprofit now is the leaseholder. He said the school has no role in Ellison's travel issues.
"The matter is between MAS, congressman Ellison and the House Ethics Committee," Broton said.
School officials declined to comment because of the litigation, Broton said.
The Minnesota Education Trust's articles of incorporation filed with the secretary of state's office May 18, 2007, state one of the group's principal goals is to "promote the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims and promote understanding between them."
It is signed by Asif Rahman, who is named in the ACLU lawsuit as a TiZA trustee and disbursement authorizer.
On the Minnesota Education Trust's annual nonprofit corporation renewal form filed March 4, 2008, Zaman, the school's director, is listed as the group's contact. A year later, the annual renewal form does not include Zaman's name as the contact.
TiZA was founded in 2003 and has about 480 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. It received about $4.7 million in state funding this past school year.
The ACLU sued TiZA in January, claiming the school blurred the lines between religion and public education by promoting Islam in school. The suit argues that TiZA violates the First Amendment and the Constitution by sharing space with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, promoting prayer in school and endorsing Muslim clothing rules and dietary practices.
A federal judge ruled last week that parts of the lawsuit could go forward.
Separately, TiZA sued state education officials July 16 in Ramsey County District Court over allegations that some of their teachers lack proper licenses.
TiZA officials claim the state Department of Education notified the school June 1 that the state would withhold $1.4 million in aid and grants as a penalty for the lack of licenses but refused to provide school officials with the documents they needed to defend themselves at an appeals hearing.
The department released more than 10,000 pages of documents to TiZA on Friday, as ordered by a district judge.
The school has until Thursday to complete a post-hearing memorandum to appeal the Department of Education's decision.
Some have called the accusations against TiZA over the past year unjust and say they distract from the charter school's successes and accomplishments.
Wayne Jennings, a former educator and administrator in St. Paul schools, has been monitoring TiZA for the past six years for its sponsor, Islamic Relief USA. He makes unannounced visits to the school to check on day-to-day operations, attends school board meetings and just performed a three-year review of the school this past spring.
Jennings said he has found an orderly, well-run school that is following the law and boosting student achievement. He notes that TiZA students have had better-than-average success on state-required exams. And that's especially surprising given the school's demographics, Jennings said. Almost 80 percent of students are from low-income families and about 70 percent are English-language learners, according to state data for the 2008-09 school year. In 2009, 86 percent of the students were proficient in math and 72 were proficient in reading, compared with the statewide averages of 64 percent and 72 percent respectively.
Plus, the school was nationally recognized this month for posting some of the biggest gains in student performance. The charter school received a Growth Achievement Award for the 2008-09 school year from the Northwest Evaluation Association.
"I think they're doing a terrific job, and I don't understand the state's constant so-called 'inspections' of the school,' " Jennings said. "It seems like the state is after them."
Critics say those achievements are to be lauded, but that doesn't mean allegations that the school is skirting the law should be ignored.
Kyte said he's very proud of a number of religious organizations that have run top-notch, successful private schools over the years.
"But in neither case, do they do it with public money," he said. "They do it with their own money."
TiZA received about $4.7 million in state aid this year. About $520,000 of that money was for lease aid. The school also received more than $873,000 in federal charter school grants last year.
Some lawmakers expressed concern this legislative session over the relationships between some charter schools and the groups that lease them space. The state gives charters a stipend per student to rent space — last year, a total of $32.7 million.
Jennings, who notes he is a longtime member of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he has not seen the school blurring the line between public education and religion.
"I just don't see it," Jennings said. "I don't see the school promoting religious beliefs. I wouldn't permit it as a monitor of the school."
Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495.