Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, the embattled metro-area charter school, got a double whammy of bad news Thursday that spelled its closure.
In a scathing rejection letter, the state turned down TiZA's request for a new overseer, which all Minnesota charter schools need to stay open. Hours later, a federal judge denied a temporary restraining order the school sought to stay open past a Thursday deadline.
Later Thursday, TiZA, which faces millions of dollars in legal expenses, filed for bankruptcy.
The school, with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, has attracted some national attention for the academic gains of its students, mostly from low-income immigrant families. It was also the focus of two state investigations and remains a defendant in a two-year federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota over charges it promotes religion.
"We are very proud of our school's accomplishments over the past eight years," said founder Asad Zaman, adding that the school is weighing its remaining options, such as a Court of Appeals filing. "It's unfortunate the powers that be couldn't find a way for us to continue."
Zaman said he is not sure if the school, which serves about 540 students, would resume summer school for 70 students Tuesday. Today, a new charter school law banning out-of-state authorizers goes into effect, making the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Islamic Relief USA ineligible to continue overseeing TiZA.The restraining order request was part of a down-to-the-wire federal lawsuit against the state Department of Education and Islamic Relief last month in which TiZA questioned the constitutionality of the new law.
Before settling out of court, the state and Islamic Relief were co-defendants in the ACLU suit, which is scheduled for trial in November. The court has directed TiZA to cover legal expenses for the former co-defendants that total about $2 million.
In denying the restraining order request early Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank wrote that the school's constitutional claims were unlikely to succeed. He also questioned why the challenge to the 2-year-old law came weeks before it goes into effect.
"While there's little doubt that TiZA has demonstrated irreparable harm," Frank wrote, "there's also little doubt that TiZA's unjustified delay contributed at least in part to that harm."
Meanwhile earlier this year, the Twin Cities-based nonprofit Novation Education Opportunities filed and twice re-filed an application to oversee TiZA. The department denied the latest application early Thursday.
In the denial, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote that Novation still didn't have a clear plan to remedy issues raised by Islamic Relief, such as the alleged religious slant of TiZA's Arabic textbook.
And she said that even as the nonprofit addressed potential conflicts of interest the state raised, new ones had come to light. Novation board member Irshad Jafri, for instance, is a business agent of the Islamic Association of the Twin Cities, which runs a weekend school on TiZA's campus and has an office there.
Novation's "application process with respect to TiZA has been marred by a lack of candor," the commissioner concluded.
Novation's executive director, Bryan Rossi, did not respond for comment Thursday.
Shamus O'Meara, TiZA's lead counsel, said the school could still appeal the department's ruling in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The school pulled its constitutional challenge Thursday.
"We don't think it's appropriate for the Department of Education to be judge, jury and executioner," O'Meara said. "TiZA believes it is entitled to continue to operate."
In its bankruptcy filing, TiZA listed about half a dozen creditors. Those included the ACLU, Islamic Relief and the Education Department, for unknown and disputed litigation claims. TiZA also reported almost $85,000 in debt owed to various businesses for services such as student meals and transportation - and no assets.
Hopeful until Thursday that the school would survive, parent Krista Saddiqui turned to researching other charter schools online.
"I am sad, and I am very angry with the Department of Education right now," said Saddiqui, the mother of three TiZA students.
Al Fan of the Minnesota Charter School Partners, a nonprofit that helped connect TiZA with Novation, said he was disappointed that Minnesota, a state grappling to close the achievement gap, was losing a school where minority students seemed to thrive.
But he said he also welcomed the state's more rigorous oversight of charters and their authorizers: "The only culprit here is the timetable."
Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the ACLU, said he's not sure how the school's closure would affect the November trial. The news was concerning, he said, because the ACLU's legal team planned to seek legal fees from the school as well.
But Charlene Briner, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said Thursday the state had given TiZA a firm timeline for closure, including a July 15 deadline to submit data on liabilities and assets: "We expect they will begin the process of closing the school tomorrow."