After reading about Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) again recently, I wanted to share my experience as the parent of a former TiZA student. TiZA is the public charter school embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Minnesota. I'm a witness in that lawsuit, on the ACLU's side.
The suit alleges that the school is using tax dollars to illegally promote religion. The suit also alleges that school leaders are funneling some of those dollars to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN) - the religious organization run by TiZA leaders.
TiZA's executive director, Asad Zaman, has denied the allegations. Last fall, quoted in a Pioneer Press article, he suggested that racism might be behind the lawsuit, which he labeled a distraction. He should know better, as should the Pioneer Press.
My opinions on this matter are informed by my previous experience as: a parent of a TiZA student, a spokesperson for MAS-MN and a board member of MET - an organization set up by TiZA's leaders to act as the school's landlord. From my perspective, Mr. Zaman's denials are not credible.
For example, I spent my daughter's kindergarten year demanding that parents be notified of school board meetings. The school never announced them. When I suggested in the spring that I might involve the state Department of Education, a board meeting was suddenly scheduled and announced to parents. I received a personal call informing me.
TiZA staff told me it was the first time a school board meeting had ever been publicly announced. Yet when I raised the subject at the board meeting, Mr. Zaman replied that it had always been TiZA's policy to publicly announce school board meetings.
I also learned that the school board had been "elected" by a hand-picked group of eight lifetime trustees. Parents had never voted in school board elections. And at the time, Mr. Zaman, in addition to his duties as TiZA's executive director and MAS-MN leader, was also chairman of the school board, which included a non-English-speaking member who happened to be MAS-MN's Imam, or religious leader.
Sharing my concerns with school officials about a conflict of interest were met with attempts to intimidate me. My wife and I removed our daughter from TiZA after she complained of mistreatment.
One of TiZA's attempts at intimidation occurred during a parent meeting held after school officials learned I had met with the Department of Education. I was at that parent meeting, and took notes. According to my notes, Mr. Zaman said, "TiZA is a public school and it is illegal for parents to meet and discuss the school without Magdy's or my knowledge or without our presence." My notes also indicated that he referred to me and another parent as whiners and complainers.
Mr. Zaman later denied making these statements. But I have a recording that I believe corroborates my notes and recollections from the meeting.
I've also shared documents that I believe confirm that Mr. Zaman ran TiZA's landlord, MET, and handled their finances, although he publicly denied involvement.
Essentially, Mr. Zaman and a handful of others founded and run a network of organizations. TiZA, MAS-MN and MET are the main players. TiZA, the public charter school, helps finance the Muslim American Society of Minnesota through the state's lease-aid program. TiZA does not appear to be the only charter school allegedly taking advantage of the lease aid program, and the problem may be systemic.
The program provides tax funds to charter schools to pay rent for their facilities. Those funds are paid by TiZA to its landlord, MET, which then makes charitable contributions to MAS-MN. In my experience, the money has also helped the TiZA/MAS-MN/MET network hire powerful attorneys and public relations experts to help intimidate parents and staff who might otherwise consider exposing the truth.
Perhaps that is why Mr. Zaman was bold enough to tell parents in another meeting that raising concerns with the Department of Education is akin to selling one's Iman or Muslim faith (I have a recording to substantiate this as well). Apparently, he would have us believe that a parent's right to be involved in his or her children's education is the domain of non-Muslims.
TiZA continues to deny the allegations, and leaders have resorted to personal attacks against me for speaking up. Their public relations firm falsely referred to me as "disgruntled" and to my claims as "unfounded" in this paper last winter while failing to mention that I've substantiated my claims with documentation while refuting lies about me with more documentation.
And while TiZA's strong test scores are now being questioned, there's no denying that the students are heroes, prevailing even as controversy surrounds their school. There is also no denying that the controversy is of the TiZA/MAS-MN/MET network's own making.
Khalid Elmasry, a graduate of St. Cloud University and Harding High School in St. Paul, lives in Maplewood.