Days from a critical June 30 deadline, anxiety and frustration are building at 20 Minnesota charter schools waiting for state officials to approve their plans for legally required oversight.
To stay open, every charter school must have a contract with an authorizer -- a school district, college or nonprofit that keeps tabs on its finances and academics. This year, a new law has prompted an unusual number of schools to seek permission to switch authorizers by Thursday, when many of their contracts expire.
"We are definitely beginning to feel the stress and pressure," said Darius Husain, executive director of Face to Face Academy, a St. Paul charter school seeking to change to a new overseer. The high school, which serves many at-risk students, operates year-round, and students are scheduled to come back from a vacation in early July.
It's unclear whether any schools will have to shut down if the state doesn't approve new overseers for them by the end of the month. Many schools could extend contracts with their current authorizers.
At least one authorizer, the St. Paul school district, wasn't promising to do that last week, though the district is exploring ways to help those schools, said Michelle Walker, St. Paul's chief accountability officer. "We certainly don't want schools to close as a result of this technicality."
The district monitors Face to Face and two other charter schools, St. Paul City School and Achieve Language Academy, that are still seeking transfers.
The schools' precarious situation is not a result of the district's actions, Walker added. The St. Paul district, like some other authorizers, made it clear long ago that it did not want to continue overseeing charter schools under the stricter requirements of a 2009 law.
Many charter school leaders who praised the law at the time now criticize the way it has been rolled out. The Minnesota Department of Education is making it too arduous for schools to switch to new authorizers this spring, they argue, pointing out that the authorizers themselves recently went through a more stringent state vetting process required under the new law.
After the law was passed, they add, the state took so long to lay out a plan for schools to come into compliance that many were left with little time to transfer to new overseers.
"It's a mess," said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. For authorizers that submitted paperwork weeks or months ago to assume oversight of schools, "The level of frustration is extraordinarily high," he said last week.
The state has a legal duty to oversee authorizers, according to David Hartman, supervisor of the Education Department's charter school center. "We see our role of reviewing these [transfer applications] as an outgrowth of our oversight," he said.
As transfer applications have come in, he said, the state has engaged in a back-and-forth with authorizers, telling them how their requests fall short and allowing them to submit more information. The state has already approved transfers for 22 schools, Hartman said.
The state plans to finish reviewing the remaining requests by Thursday, he said. But some may not be approved, he said, acknowledging that some schools could close this summer.
"We have transparent standards in place, and we have worked to express them in advance of this process," Hartman said.
Six of the schools in limbo seek to be overseen by Audubon Center of the North Woods, including Dunwoody Academy in Minneapolis and Lake Superior High School in Duluth. Novation Education Opportunities has applied to oversee the other 14, including Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA).
TiZA, a charter school tangled in high-profile court battles, is in a somewhat different situation because its authorizer, a California nonprofit, is not eligible to continue overseeing the school because of the new law that bans out-of-state authorizers.
The school has a court hearing next week in a federal lawsuit that it filed against the Education Department, challenging the law. It is also fighting a lawsuit from the ACLU of Minnesota, which claims the school has illegally promoted religion.
In addition to the schools with pending transfer requests, Hartman said that four or five charter schools are either closing or fighting shutdown this summer as a result of problems with finances, academics or enrollment. Those include Studio Academy in Rochester, Long Tieng Academy in St. Paul, Prestige Academy in Minneapolis and Great River Academy in Waite Park.
Several dozen Minnesota charter schools have closed for a variety of reasons in the past 20 years. Minnesota, which in 1991 became the first state to pass legislation enabling the special public schools, had about 150 charter schools in 2010-11.