A federal judge says he will rule by Thursday in a lawsuit that could determine whether an embattled Twin Cities charter school is forced to shut down.
The fate of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) hangs in the balance as both the judge and state officials weigh key decisions before a new state law takes effect Friday. That law could deal a fatal blow to the public school, already chest-deep in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota over claims it has illegally promoted religion.
At a hearing on Tuesday in U.S. District Court, TiZA claimed that the new law violates the U.S. Constitution and asked Judge Donovan Frank to issue a temporary restraining allowing the school to stay open while the case proceeds.
But the constitutional challenge is "crazy," said Kathryn Woodruff, an attorney for the state education commissioner, who was named in the school's suit along with its current authorizer, Islamic Relief USA.
"They are scattering these claims like so much confetti," said Woodruff, arguing that the school is trying to get a federal judge to intervene in issues of state law.
The new law, passed in 2009, bars out-of-state organizations from overseeing charter schools, which disqualifies Islamic Relief.
Among other arguments Tuesday, TiZA attorney Shamus O'Meara said that the state law could allow the Education Department to try and close TiZA without a hearing.
It's unclear what state officials will do if the school does not have a new overseer on Friday -- a source of frustration for TiZA's attorneys.
"I still don't know what they're going to do, and neither does the school," O'Meara told the judge.
The school's first state aid payment after the new law kicks in is scheduled for July 15. "The school board is extremely concerned that that money's not going to be forthcoming," O'Meara said.
A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Charlene Briner, would not say what process the state will follow if TiZA is shuttered for lack of oversight, pointing out that the state is still reviewing an application for the school to switch to a new authorizer. That review will be finished by Thursday, Briner said.
State denied earlier request
An earlier request submitted by TiZA's prospective authorizer, Novation Education Opportunities, was denied by the state a few weeks ago.
Woodruff urged the judge not to issue a restraining order for several reasons.
Closing a charter school is never easy, she added, but "the Legislature did not contemplate that schools remain open while these issues are being litigated."
Depending on the circumstances, charter schools faced with closure are not always entitled to a hearing under state law, she said.
Tuesday's hearing comes after years of litigation between TiZA, the state and Islamic Relief -- all three of which were initially named in the ACLU's suit. This spring, the school sued the state education commissioner and Islamic Relief in Ramsey County District Court, arguing that both were hindering TiZA's attempts to transfer to new oversight. The judge dismissed the case, saying that the Minnesota Court of Appeals had jurisdiction. TiZA filed the federal suit weeks later.
The state, the school and its authorizer have all argued that they're not to blame for the fact that TiZA's fate remains uncertain on the eve of Thursday's deadline.
Even so, the public may fault all three, Frank warned them. "The public won't be so forgiving when children are affected," the judge said.
TiZA, with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, has about 540 students in grades K-10.