A metro-area charter school embroiled in two federal lawsuits likely will remain in suspense until hours before a new state law threatening its closure goes into effect Friday.
The Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy asked a federal judge Tuesday to ensure it stays open after July 1, when a ban on out-of-state charter overseers could leave it without one. A charter cannot stay open without such an authorizer.
The temporary restraining order TiZA requested is part of a constitutional challenge the school has mounted against the new charter law. The school also is suing the state and Washington, D.C.-based Islamic Relief, its authorizer, charging they are interfering with its efforts to line up a new overseer.
At a hearing he deemed one of the more emotional of his career, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said he would issue a ruling by noon Thursday. He lamented the parties landed in his courtroom on the eve of TiZA's deadline and predicted the public will place some blame on all three.
"The public won't be so forgiving when children are affected," he said.
Frank also presides over TiZA's two-year standoff with the American Civil Liberties Union over charges the school promotes religion.
TiZA serves about 540 students - many from poor immigrant families - on campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. It is headed to a November trial in the ACLU case in which the state and Islamic Relief were codefendants before settling with the ACLU.
TiZA is one of about a dozen charter schools still waiting to hear from the state Department of Education on applications to switch authorizers. The department will rule on all applications by Thursday morning, said spokeswoman Charlene Briner.
Earlier this month, the department rejected the nonprofit Novation Education Opportunities' bid to oversee TiZA, citing conflicts of interest and other issues. Novation resubmitted the application days later.
TiZA attorney Shamus O'Meara bashed the state for failing to explain what would happen to the school after the June 30 deadline. Until the hearing, he said, the school didn't even know the state plans to rule on Novation's resubmission by Thursday.
"A little dialogue on the front end of this could have gone a long way," O'Meara said.
He argued the new state law does not automatically free Islamic Relief of obligations under its contract, which runs for another year. The nonprofit could have incorporated in Minnesota, for instance, to meet the law's requirements.
Frank eventually will rule on TiZA's argument that the law is unconstitutional because among other things, it severs the school's existing contract with Islamic Relief. O'Meara asked that the status quo under that contract remain until such a ruling.
But attorneys for the Education Department and Islamic Relief said TiZA's constitutional argument is weak: In wanting to keep closer tabs on overseers, Minnesota had a legitimate reason to do away with out-of-state authorizers, they said. And with the state law going into effect, neither defendant could honor the contract with Islamic Relief.
"This is a situation they've had two years to deal with," Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Woodruff said, referring to the signing of the new charter law in spring 2009. "I am sorry we are here today."
Asad Zaman, TiZA's executive director, said 75 students started summer school this week, and he expects the academy to operate as usual until more clarity from the Education Department.
The school worries it will not receive $300,000 in state aid payments next month. Last month, a district court dismissed a similar TiZA lawsuit against the state and Islamic Relief.
After the hearing, Briner declined to clarify what would happen if TiZA does not have a new authorizer or a judicial restraining order come Friday.