Already fighting a years-long court battle, a Twin Cities charter school has now filed a lawsuit against its overseer and the state, saying they're putting the school at risk of closure.
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), whose 540 students include many from Somalia and other Muslim countries, is already mired in a court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which claims the public school has illegally promoted Islam.
The state and TiZA's nonprofit authorizer, Islamic Relief USA, were also named in that suit, straining their relations with the school. Now, TiZA is suing both in a separate dispute over its quest to retain the oversight it needs to stay open.
In documents filed Thursday in Ramsey County District Court, the school claims that Islamic Relief and the state Education Department have hindered its attempt to transfer to a new overseer. Their conduct "directly jeopardizes" the education of TiZA's students, said school attorney Shamus O'Meara.
All Minnesota charter schools need an authorizer to stay open. Now, TiZA is coming up against a new state law that disqualifies Islamic Relief from continuing in the role.
Islamic Relief has supported the school's search for new oversight, said Beverly Perez, the organization's lawyer. "We have tried to do everything that we possibly can on our side to facilitate the transfer," she said. "We're very concerned about where these kids are going to end up if something were to happen to the school."
Families at the school's Inver Grove Heights and Blaine campuses are worried, too, said school director Asad Zaman.
The school is among dozens struggling to comply with a 2009 law that keeps closer tabs on the state's charter schools. For TiZA, one problem is that Islamic Relief is based in Virginia, and the new law prohibits out-of-state authorizers.
The law gives the schools until June 30 to pair up with authorizers under a new approval process, though lawmakers may extend the deadline.
TiZA found a new authorizer willing to take on the school, but its application to transfer oversight has not been approved. The school claims that Islamic Relief has improperly interfered with the transfer process, causing the Education Department to suspend review of the application.
That happened because the application is incomplete, said David Hartman, acting director of the department's charter school center. Hartman declined to answer some questions about the lawsuit, saying he could not comment on the specifics of pending litigation.
The document under dispute in the application is a letter signed last fall by TiZA and a Minnesota representative for Islamic Relief in which they agreed to part ways once the school got new oversight. Islamic Relief says the letter was signed without approval.
Islamic Relief has since proposed a different agreement that would end its contract with TiZA this summer, regardless of whether the school has a new overseer in place. The school refused to sign it.
The contract doesn't expire until the summer of 2012, but Perez said the new law clearly bars Islamic Relief from overseeing the school after June 30. Zaman countered that the authorizer has a contractual obligation to either "incorporate in the state of Minnesota or find some other solution for us."
As part of a recent settlement with the ACLU, Islamic Relief agreed not to incorporate in Minnesota.
The school wants the court to declare its application complete and order the state to transfer it to a new authorizer. TiZA also wants its contract with Islamic Relief to be declared valid through June 2012, regardless of the new law.
A court hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, O'Meara said.