State officials are examining whether public money has been improperly used to pay for Islamic mosques on charter school campuses in Blaine and Inver Grove Heights.
Chas Anderson, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said officials will study Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy's (TiZA) use of state "lease aid" grants, which were created more than a decade ago to help charter schools rent adequate facilities.
"If it is subsidizing a mosque, in our view, that would be a violation of state and federal law," Anderson said.
The probe is the latest in a series of church-vs.-state conflicts involving TiZA and several Islamic nonprofit organizations with ties to the charter school.
Anderson said the inquiry was sparked by a lawsuit filed against the school this year by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, which claims taxpayer dollars paid to TiZA are unconstitutionally promoting religion.
TiZA spokesman Darin Broton said the school will cooperate, but he accused officials of conducting a politically motivated investigation. He said the department has conducted 19 TiZA inquiries in the past year and a half.
"The behavior of the Minnesota Department of Education regarding TiZA Academy continues to confound common sense or conscience," Broton said in a statement Friday. "At some point we trust they will focus on student achievement not discriminatory harassment."
In letters written late Friday, TiZA threatened to sue the state for $1.5 million on defamation charges for publicly disclosing the investigation. In a letter to Attorney General Lori Swanson, TiZA attorney Erick Kaardal said the probe was launched as part of an effort to "discriminate" against the school "because of the student population's mix of races and religious beliefs."
Since opening in 2003 as a public charter school, TiZA has received a total of $2.23 million in rent money from the state's lease aid program, records show.
TiZA leases space from two companies with ties to Minnesota Education Trust, a non-profit organization that owns an Islamic mosque in Duluth. The trust has received at least $315,000 in rent proceeds in the past two years.
Until 2007, TiZA rented property from the Muslim American Society-Minnesota (MAS-MN), and the society still has ties to the school. MAS-MN was in the news last month for paying the expenses of Rep. Keith Ellison's private trip to the holy site of Mecca in 2008. Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat, is the first Muslim member of Congress.
TiZA has said there is no connection between TiZA rent money and Ellison's trip, because MAS-MN stopped getting the rent funds for the school more than a year before the trip. MAS-MN received nearly $900,000 from TiZA in 2006 and 2007, money TiZA collected through the lease aid program.
This month, the state Education Department denied an application from the Minnesota Education Trust to oversee a charter school in the town of Morton that emphasizes American Indian culture, saying that the trust is a sectarian organization actively promoting the religion of Islam.
In a court filing last week, the Education Department moved to support that claim by noting for the first time that the trust owns a Duluth building that houses the Islamic Center of Twin Ports.
The mosque was formerly a unitarian church. Kathy Stinnett, congregational administrator for the church, said the Minnesota Education Trust bought the building in 2007 and is still making payments.
The Education Trust has argued that it does not promote religion.
Legally, a property owner can use the taxpayer money they receive from charter schools however they wish, Anderson said. But she said it would be illegal for a charter school to cover the expenses of a mosque operated by its landlord or any other non-school organization.
Anderson estimated it will take three to four weeks to complete the review. So far, she said, it appears that MAS-MN, TiZA'S former landlord, runs the mosques at both TiZA campuses.
Another TiZA spokesman, Blois Olson, disputes that characterization. He said the Blaine school has a prayer room, not a mosque, that is used to accommodate student interests. He said at least two high schools in the Minneapolis public school system have the same amenity.
Olson said there is also a prayer room at TiZA's flagship campus in Inver Grove Heights, but he said the facility is part of a 3,000-square-foot daycare center used and operated by MAS-MN.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of ACLU of Minnesota, said such hair-splitting is pointless.
"The school exists within the mosque," he said.
Christine Dufour, a spokesman for the Education Department, declined to comment on TiZA's threat to sue.
"We will not respond to a letter we have not received nor a lawsuit that has not been filed," she said.