June 6: Minneapolis district cancels North Side charter school’s lease

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 8:22 PM

Officials cite testing and financial problems for the move. The district plans to reopen Cityview building as a K-5 school.

Citing financial, management and academic problems, the Minneapolis School District is canceling the lease of a 325-student North Side charter school it authorized.

The two-year-old Minnesota School of Science is crying foul over the early May termination of its lease, which expires June 30. But it’s more than $500,000 behind on lease payments for the former Cityview school building due to a complication in state law. The school also had an entire classroom’s tests thrown out last year, according to a district official, and this year’s testing is being examined.

Other concerns include the school’s financial management, which is under a corrective plan and questions about whether special education students are being adequately served, according to Sara Paul, who has headed the district’s new schools initiative, which includes authorizing charter and self-governed schools.

Paul said the district is making plans to reopen the Cityview building, 3350 N. 4th St., as a district K-5 school for the charter school’s students, and its middle-school students may enroll in Olson Middle School.

Murat Ergen, the charter school’s board president, said in a letter to the district that the timing of the lease termination makes it hard to find a new authorizer or a new building.

Quirk in state law

Either of those options might allow the school to qualify for state lease aid, which can cover 90 percent of leasing a school. State law doesn’t allow a charter school to pay a school district its lease aid when it is both the landlord and the school authorizer, a provision intended to address some past conflicts of interest involving charter schools. The district fought that interpretation of the law by appealing to the Minnesota Department of Education and in court, and also asking the Legislature to change it, all unsuccessfully.

That leaves the science charter school and the district disagreeing about whether the lease requires that the unpaid rent be paid to the district. Another North Side charter school, Minneapolis College Prep, also is behind on rent to the district for the former Lincoln school for the same reason. But that school’s lease hasn’t been canceled because different wording means it’s not now in default, Paul said.

Multiple pending problems

The district last fall issued a notice of deficiency to Minnesota School of Science for a variety of issues, Paul said. She said that it would be “irresponsible” for the district to allow the school to switch to another authorizer, which would solve the lease issue, while multiple problems are pending.

Ergen, however, cited a spectacular rise in state test scores as part of its rationale for why the district should help it find a new overseer or a new school. For example, she said, math proficiency jumped from 31 percent in the school’s first year to 55 percent this spring. But Paul called those results into question. She said last year “a significant number” of test scores were thrown out because of testing irregularities reported by the school staff, including those from an entire classroom. More issues were raised in spring testing, she said.

The charter school and district have tangled before. School board members spoke scathingly last year of a late eviction by Minnesota School of Science of about 40 district special education students who shared the Cityview building and were mainstreamed for part of their day in the charter’s classes. Board member Gene Scapanski said the charter regrets that late notice but said that the situation was overburdening teachers.

Paul said more concerns were raised this year about the adequacy of services for the charter’s own special education students and about whether administrators were violating enrollment standards by counseling some students to leave the school.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib

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