The Minnesota Department of Education has told St. Croix Preparatory Academy that the public charter school seems to be violating state law by charging students fees for books and other materials.

In a letter sent Thursday, the department told the Stillwater school that its practice "appears inconsistent with state law," and asked it to explain how it plans to address the issue.

The letter marks the second time this summer that the school's fundraising has come under question. The school recently was criticized for a $1.2 million fundraising campaign that asks families to pay an average of $1,200. The school said it would build ball fields, purchase education technology and stage equipment for dramatic productions.

Until recently, St. Croix Academy, which teaches grades K-12, maintained a fee schedule on its website that appeared to charge families of its kindergarten to fourth-grade students $70 annually, and its sixth- to eighth-grade students $80 for such things as workbooks, art supplies and a "technology and administration fee."

The letter from state officials in parts reads: "public school education shall be free and no pupil shall be denied an education because of economic inability to furnish educational books and supplies necessary to complete educational requirements."

On Thursday, that fee schedule, the subject of the Department of Education's letter, was gone from the website. St. Croix Academy officials did not return phone calls.

Policies defended

Beth Topoluk is the charter school liaison for Friends of Education, the organization that is the school's authorizer and thus responsible for ensuring that St. Croix Academy operates properly. She said that Friends of Education reviewed the school fees earlier this year and prompted the school to refund a portion of them, effective June 11.

"Generally St. Croix Prep has effective policies procedures, and despite all that, this did occur," Topoluk said.

Topoluk said she was unsure of the exact amount of the refund, but that it was "several thousand dollars." She wasn't certain how long the school has been charging the fees.

What's more, despite the refund, as recently as July 7, the school maintained a fee schedule on its website, state officials said in the letter. Topoluk said she had not spoken recently with school officials about the posted fee schedule. She said that it is summer and no fees are being charged.

St. Croix Academy "was very open and accessible," with its books, Topoluk said.

She said she was not aware of the state's review, but that, "we all appreciate the department's guidance."

The Friends of Education organization, which also authorizes 15 other Minnesota charter schools, did review St. Croix Academy's current fundraising campaign before it began.

"We didn't review the campaign material or anything of that nature," Topoluk said. "We did review the applicable law and did find that it was in compliance."

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287