Minnesota's charter schools often open with a host of fire code violations.
Inadequate fire alarm and sprinkler systems, improper exits, lack of firewall protection, and inadequate water supply are among problems fire code inspectors have found when they inspect just-opened charter schools.
The problem, state officials say, is that the law doesn't require schools in leased space -- where charter schools generally are located -- to release building plans to state inspectors prior to signing leases and opening.
These problems emerged Thursday during the third of four hearings being held on charter school facilities by a Senate subcommittee. The subcommittee has generally been concerned with charter schools' use of state lease-aid, which is used to help charter schools pay their rent. Legislators are concerned that the aid sometimes is being used, and abused, in tandem with expensive junk bonds to purchase buildings.
That has fueled a largely unregulated charter school building boom. The concern is that the practice violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. A Star Tribune investigation found little state oversight of charter school construction programs and abuses of the lease-aid system.
Subcommittee members hope to devise new legislation designed to tighten the oversight of charter school facilities, said subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury. Their proposals could be considered during the legislative session scheduled to start next month.
The fire code violation disclosures provided a new twist in the charter school debate.
"When new charter schools open, we find out when the Department of Education is ready to license the schools," said Bob Dahm, chief deputy state fire marshal. "At that point the school is leased. We sometimes come in and find fire code violations that are extremely costly to correct."
Examples cited by Dahm and two other state officials included: Two charter schools in Pillager, Minn., that needed a fire alarm system, sprinkler system, fire department access road, fire hydrants and better exits; a charter school in Bemidji that moved into a mall without knowing that a fire-resistant wall was needed to separate the school from the rest of the mall; and Prairie Creek Community Charter School in Faribault, which had to undergo extensive remodeling when violations were found. Changes included installing a complete fire sprinkler system and a 40,000-gallon underground water storage tank.
Once the problems are found, Dahm said, schools can face a huge expense to correct them, including tearing out walls and ceilings. The process can also disrupt learning.
Dahm stressed that his and other officials' concerns center primarily on new charters, not existing ones, which have generally corrected any problems. He and other state officials said they want the law tightened so charters are required to submit plans to inspectors before the buildings are leased and opened for business.
Regular public schools are required to submit building plans to inspectors before they open. Charter schools are public schools allowed to operate outside some of the rules that govern public schools, and are often aimed at educating particular student populations or learning interest areas.
In other testimony Thursday, a parent and former board member of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) charter school slammed the school's directors as being dictatorial and unresponsive to concerns of parents and teachers. The parent, Khalid Elmasry, identified himself as a former board member of the Minnesota Education Trust, which is connected to TiZA.
The school, with campuses in Blaine and Inver Grove Heights, has been at the center of controversies including charges that it illegally promotes Islam and is at the center of a tangle of Muslim nonprofit organizations abusing the use of state lease-aid payments.
Elmasry said that, as a board member, he was told what the board agenda was and how to vote. He also said that when parents and others raised concerns over questionable TiZA practices, they were intimidated into silence.
TiZA spokesman Blois Olson said the school would not comment on the testimony.
"Neither the school nor [school executive director] Asad Zaman is going to respond to unfounded personal attacks," he said. Olson said the school always has complied with all of Minnesota's charter school laws, with the exception of some improper teacher licensing discovered last year.