A metro-area charter school that has been beset by controversy for years is now scrambling to avoid closure as soon as this summer.
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) is among dozens of Minnesota charter schools that still need to pair up with a state-approved authorizer by June 30 under a new law that more closely regulates the special public schools.
Despite strong test scores, TiZA's efforts to meet that deadline have been complicated by an ongoing lawsuit that claims the public school illegally promotes Islam, as well as a new rule that disqualifies the school's current authorizer from continuing in that role.
So will the school be shut down? "I hope not," TiZA director Asad Zaman said Friday. "We're trying to make that not happen."
TiZA has about 540 students in grades K-10 at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. The school is currently overseen by Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit based in Virginia.
But Islamic Relief can't keep overseeing the school because legislation passed in 2009 bans out-of-state sponsors.
The school's relations with both Islamic Relief and the state have also been severely strained by litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. The ACLU claims the school has wrongly accepted taxpayer money while promoting religion, while TiZA officials say they have reasonably accommodated students who wish to exercise their religious rights on campus.
On Thursday, TiZA's board approved changes to school policies dealing with religious accommodation, school uniforms, data practices and conflicts of interest.
In a written statement, TiZA officials said that they believe the school is and has always followed the law, and that the changes were not a response to the ACLU suit.
Rather, the revisions were a result of pressure from Islamic Relief and the Minnesota Department of Education, TiZA said. The school said it was "compelled" to make changes or risk being denied a new authorizer.
Teachers at TiZA are increasingly worried that the school may close, Zaman said Friday. "Over 10 teachers have asked us for letters of recommendation, and that is a sure sign they're looking for jobs," he said.
At Thursday's meeting, the school's board also authorized administrators to prepare severance packages for its staff if the school closes. The intent, Zaman said, is to give employees a safety net that will make them less likely to flee for other jobs.
An attorney for TiZA said Friday that the school probably will challenge the new law if officials try to shut it down for lack of an authorizer.
Seeking an authorizer
Authorizers, previously called sponsors, are required by state law to keep tabs on a charter school's finances and student performance. They can be school districts, colleges or nonprofits, but every charter school must have one to stay open.
TiZA has approached eight prospective authorizers, some of whom either didn't respond or said the school should go elsewhere, Zaman said.
But one authorizer, Novation Education Opportunities (NEO), has applied to take on the school.
NEO already monitors several charter schools, including BlueSky Online School, which could be shut down for what state officials say are continuing violations of graduation requirements.
Officials at the state Department of Education said Friday that NEO's application to oversee TiZA is incomplete. One key document that NEO has yet to submit: an updated evaluation of the school from Islamic Relief.
In that review, TiZA's current authorizer praises the school for its academic and financial performance and says it supports giving the school a new overseer -- if changes are made.
For one thing, the school has fallen short in candor and cooperation, Islamic Relief said. Even in their bid to switch authorizers, TiZA officials submitted documents that Islamic Relief had not approved -- a claim the school disputes.
Many problems came to light in the litigation with the ACLU, Islamic Relief said. Islamic Relief was a codefendant in the lawsuit, but has since settled with the ACLU.
For example, a confidentiality clause in the school's handbook was viewed by TiZA "as a means to deter present and former ... employees from providing truthful information in litigation."
The lawsuit also uncovered official documents related to TiZA that were purportedly signed by Islamic Relief's founder, but which the founder said he neither signed nor authorized.
The school has made "material misrepresentations in official filings," said Islamic Relief, adding that TiZA has never supplied enough information to make it clear whether it has addressed claims that it has a conflict of interest with its landlords.
The nonprofit also raised concerns about how TiZA chooses board members and schedules meetings, and said a new overseer would need to make sure the school is following election and open-meeting laws.
The changes to TiZA's policies and handbooks that were adopted by the board on Thursday were made shortly after Islamic Relief released its evaluation.
State officials and Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU, said Friday that they have not seen the specific changes made by the school's board.