Lawsuit finds new evidence in TiZA charter school case

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 12, 2011 - 11:22 PM

Trying to wash their hands of a lawsuit over alleged promotion of Islam at a Minnesota charter school, state officials said in court filings this month that the school misled investigators looking into complaints against the K-8 academy.

The state education commissioner, asking to be dropped as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, wrote that some evidence that Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) broke the law emerged only after the suit was filed. Those findings range from documents with forged signatures to an impermissible Arabic language curriculum, according to lawyers for the state.

For its part, the school now argues that the ACLU of Minnesota lacks authority to sue because the organization was dissolved by the secretary of state nearly five years ago.

Those arguments and more are contained in a flurry of new court filings in which the education commissioner, the school and various school officials have all asked a federal judge to dismiss the ACLU's claims.

The suit alleged that the public school violated the U.S. Constitution by promoting religion.

Some evidence surfaced in depositions during the past few months and goes well beyond the ACLU's initial arguments, said Chuck Samuelson, the group's executive director. "We never thought there were forgeries," he said. "That's a big thing, and that was news to us."

In a written statement on Wednesday, TiZA denied the allegations and pounced on the ACLU's dissolution as "hypocrisy" in a case that has led to close scrutiny of the school's business practices.

Samuelson acknowledged the dissolution, saying it was a mistake that resulted when registration paperwork required by the secretary of state somehow "slipped through the cracks" around the time that the organization moved to a new address.

Lawyers for the ACLU are evaluating whether and how that affects the lawsuit, he said.

Lawyers for the state say the education commissioner should not be held responsible because her staff investigated all the complaints they received about the school. But they said some issues surfaced only after the suit was filed, including these allegations:

• Signatures of the former president of the school's sponsoring organization, Islamic Relief USA, were forged at least seven times on documents sent to the state.

• The Muslim American Society of Minnesota paid TiZA teachers to teach Islamic studies as part of their school day.

• The school used an Arabic language curriculum that was marketed by the bookseller as having a strong focus on Islamic values.

• Before opening and in its early years, TiZA was marketed as an Islamic school to the Muslim community.

• The school failed to make clear to state officials potential conflicts of interest with its sectarian landlord, among other misrepresentations.

The school, which has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, has denied those claims.

Samuelson says they "paint a disappointing picture" of TiZA.

"Truthfulness is sort of something one expects," he said.

The ACLU's initial complaint, filed in January 2009 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, described the school as a place where teachers participated in student prayer activities and the dress code conformed to Islamic law.

The ACLU argued that state officials were also at fault for failing to uncover and stop the alleged violations, though a judge later dismissed all but one of those claims.

In recent court filings, Islamic Relief USA and the education commissioner have also asked for indemnification against TiZA.

A settlement conference in the case has been scheduled for next month before Magistrate Judge Jeanne J. Graham.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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