With the clock ticking down to a pivotal June 30 deadline, a beleaguered metro-area charter school has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a change in state law that could force it to close.
In a complaint filed Wednesday against its overseer and the Minnesota Commissioner of Education, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) claims that a new prohibition of out-of-state charter school authorizers violates the U.S. Constitution.
TiZA's current authorizer, Islamic Relief USA, is based out of state, and the school's efforts to transfer to a new organization have yet to be approved by the Minnesota Department of Education.
If the school does not have a new overseer when the rule takes effect in two weeks, "TiZA runs the risk of the Department claiming that we can no longer operate as a public school," said Shamus O'Meara, an attorney for the school.
That is, indeed, how state officials are interpreting the law, said Department spokeswoman Charlene Briner, who declined to comment Wednesday on several claims made in the school's suit.
The school has found a potential in-state authorizer, but its application to oversee TiZA was rejected by the state this month. State officials say they are reviewing a revised application that was submitted a few days later. "We are sensitive to the timeline," Briner said.
But, O'Meara said, "We can't sit around and hope for the best." The fate of the school will affect the education of its 540 students, he pointed out.
Tension has been building this spring at the K-10 school's Blaine and Inver Grove Heights campuses. But litigation and public scrutiny are nothing new to its students, many of whom belong to immigrant families from Somalia or other predominantly Muslim countries. For more than two years, TiZA has battled the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota in federal court over allegations that the school has promoted Islam.
The school's new lawsuit claims that the ban on out-of-state authorizers violates the Constitution's due process, contract, commerce and equal protection clauses.
That ban is one piece of legislation passed in 2009 to more closely regulate Minnesota's charter schools. Another provision that worried officials at many schools required authorizers to apply by this summer for state approval under a new vetting process, but legislators recently extended that deadline by a year.
TiZA is the only Minnesota charter school overseen by a group based out of state, according to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.
School officials believe that legislators intentionally singled out TiZA when they crafted the 2009 law. They argue that the law discriminates against out-of-state charitable organizations. And they say that, as the law is written, the state could seek to close TiZA without a hearing similar to those offered schools shut down because of academic or financial problems.
"It's premature to speculate" what process the state would follow if TiZA is shut down for lack of oversight, Briner said, adding that the department affords schools due process "in every incident."
The school also argues that Islamic Relief and the state have impeded the school's attempts to switch to a new authorizer.
The school made that claim this spring in Ramsey County District Court, but a judge dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. TiZA may still take the issue to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, O'Meara said.
Beverly Perez, an attorney for Islamic Relief, said the group has done "everything that we reasonably could" to help the school find new oversight.
"It's out of our hands," she said.