A metro-area charter school faces a tight timeline to ensure its survival after the state denied an application from its would-be overseer.
The Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, has until the end of the month to lock in a state-approved authorizer. To stay open, each Minnesota charter school needs such an organization to oversee its budget and academics.
The state rejected an application by the nonprofit Novation Education Opportunities to take over for the Washington, D.C.-based Islamic Relief-USA. On June 30, a new ban on out-of-state authorizers will make Islamic Relief ineligible to oversee TiZA.
"Things are very grave," said Asad Zaman, TiZA's executive director. "Parents are very concerned. Staff is very concerned."
Last month, a Ramsey County court dismissed a lawsuit TiZA filed against the state and Islamic Relief, charging they are obstructing its efforts to land a new overseer.
Novation is preparing to resubmit its application today, said its executive director, Bryan Rossi.
Meanwhile, TiZA is gearing up for a Nov. 7 trial in a two-year legal standoff with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has accused the school of promoting religion. The state and Islamic Relief were co-defendants in that suit but have since settled.
In a 10-page letter, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius listed a host of reasons for rejecting Novation's application.
Instead of a joint letter ending their commitment to each other, the school and Islamic Relief turned in separate letters: TiZA's said the commitment would end as soon as the school lines up a new overseer. Islamic Relief's said it would end June 30.
The letter from Cassellius also cited conflicts of interest the application does not adequately address. Until last fall, Novation listed Zaman as an advisory council member. Julie Henderson, Novation's board president, is a former TiZA contractor.
Finally, the letter said, Novation needs to do a better job of explaining how it will address concerns raised by Islamic Relief, including "concerns about transparency of operations and candor in TiZA's relationship with its authorizer."
"I think it's pretty clear the letter identifies concerns with the authorizer more than with the school," said department spokeswoman Charlene Briner.
Rossi said some of the department's concerns reflect "misunderstandings" he hopes to clear up in a face-to-face meeting.
"Right now it's very worrisome that it's so late in the game with a government shutdown looming," said Rossi, adding he is still hopeful the state and Novation can work as partners to keep TiZA open.
TiZA supporters have expressed alarm at the prospect of its closure: The school serves predominantly low-income and minority students, and it has received recognition for high test scores.
This spring, the state approved five Novation applications to oversee charter schools. Fifteen other applications by the nonprofit are pending, including a resubmission of an application the state rejected over conflict-of-interest concerns.
Mark Azman, an attorney for TiZA, said the school is focused on resubmitting the Novation application. As June 30 draws near, though, the academy might consider challenging the rejection in appeals court or the out-of-state authorizer ban in federal court.
"It is a date that is looming," Azman said, "and it will play a big role in what TiZA decides to do."