Minnesota charter schools get another year to comply

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 18, 2011 - 10:56 PM

Minnesota's charter schools will have an extra year to comply with a new state law, easing fears that some might have to close this summer.

The state's 150 charter schools had faced a June 30 deadline to pair up with authorizers vetted by the state in a new process that the Legislature approved in 2009. Every charter school needs an authorizer -- a college, school district or nonprofit that keeps tabs on the school's finances and academic performance.

More than 50 schools have yet to nail down the necessary oversight, but on Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill that gives authorizers until the summer of 2012 to apply for state approval.

"I think it will be a relief to schools and to authorizers that there's time to get these things in place," said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

"It's good news for both us and for other schools," said Karen Terhaar, director of the International Spanish Language Academy in Minnetonka.

The K-6 academy, which offers language immersion and International baccalaureate programs, is on track to meet the June 30 deadline, but the extension is a welcome safety net, Terhaar said.

Like many charter schools, the language academy had to seek new oversight because its current authorizer, the Hopkins school district, opted not to continue monitoring the school under the new, stricter requirements. Instead, the school has found another authorizer that has applied to the state for approval to assume the Hopkins district's duties.

Some school officials said that, regardless of the new deadline, they still need to transfer to new authorizers by June 30. St. Paul City School, for example, must find new oversight because its authorizing contract expires this summer, said school director Nancy Dana. That school has also found a prospective authorizer that has applied to transfer oversight.

Families and teachers at the school are waiting anxiously to hear back, Dana said. "I have every reason to because it's a go," she added. "I just need the official word."

The Education Department has received 33 transfer applications, and has approved nine so far. The state will review and respond to them "as soon as we can," said David Hartman, acting supervisor of the department's charter school center.

The department is also working with as-yet-unapproved authorizers that wish to continue overseeing schools. Augsburg College and Bethel University, for example, are among nine authorizers that have until Friday to address problems that the state found in their applications, Hartman said.

Of the 56 schools that still need an overseer approved under the new rules, 21 do not have either a transfer application pending or an authorizer actively working with the state to gain approval, Hartman said.

The bill signed Wednesday will not make a difference for Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), according to a lawyer for the school's authorizer. TiZA, which is embroiled in a federal lawsuit over claims that it has promoted religion, last week sued its authorizer and the Education Department in a separate dispute over its search for new oversight.

The school's current authorizer, Islamic Relief USA, is ineligible to continue overseeing the school because the new law forbids out-of-state authorizers. Islamic Relief is based in Virginia.

That clause of the law goes into effect this summer, regardless of the bill signed Wednesday, said Sarah Bushnell, an attorney for Islamic Relief.

TiZA claims that Islamic Relief and the state have hindered the school's attempt to transfer to a new authorizer. But during a court hearing on Wednesday, a Ramsey County district court judge dismissed the school's claims, saying that the Minnesota Court of Appeals has jurisdiction.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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