Two-thirds of the teachers at an Inver Grove Heights charter school that has been sued for allegedly promoting Islam are not properly licensed, according to a report from state officials.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Education have said they will withhold state aid to Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) that could total nearly $1 million if the public school can't show that it's following teacher-licensing laws.
But the school, which met a Monday deadline to respond to the state's concerns after a site visit last month, said that the vast majority of its teachers are in compliance and that many questions about the licenses stemmed from misspelled names and other clerical errors.
"A lot of this is administrative paperwork," said school spokesman Blois Olson, adding that he's confident the school won't lose state funds.
"These are issues we take seriously, but they will not affect the quality of the education that the students receive or the future of the school," he said.
The alleged violations come in the midst of a lawsuit filed against TiZA by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which claims that the school is crossing the line that the Constitution draws between religion and the state and breaking laws that regulate charter schools.
In documents filed by the school last week in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, the school says that state education officials are still reviewing a list of possible legal violations at TiZA.
But TiZA officials, who have said they're following the law, argue that the school has already taken care of most of the state's concerns. In fact, the school used the state's investigation as an argument to dismiss the ACLU lawsuit last week, saying that administrative paths for addressing the alleged problems have not been exhausted.
"TiZA's being held to a much higher standard right now because of all these issues," said Olson, adding that the school has performed well academically, earned state kudos for its financial reporting and been used as a model for other charter schools. Last summer, its scores on state math tests topped the list among high-poverty schools in the metro area.
The school has about 500 students in grades K-8, many of whom are Muslim and from poor, immigrant families.
Complaint sparks state visit
According to court documents, state education officials received a complaint that several instructors at TiZA were teaching Arabic language classes or physical education without valid licenses. The claim, made by a source whom Education Department staff would not name on Monday, led state officials to compare school class schedules with a list of TiZA staff, with licensure data that the school, like others in Minnesota, must submit to the government.
On March 19, state officials made unannounced visits to the school's two campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. Out of 35 teachers, 23 lacked appropriate licenses, not including two improperly licensed substitute teachers, they reported last month.
In some cases, aides or paraprofessionals appear to have been leading classes that should have been taught by teachers, state officials said. The report also listed some teachers as having expired Minnesota teaching licenses or none at all.
Some of the questioned licenses didn't show up in state records because of administrative errors such as misspelling teachers' names, many of which are foreign, the school said.
But the school also has struggled to find enough teachers with Minnesota licenses who are bilingual in languages such as Somali, Urdu and Farsi. More than 70 percent of the school's students are English language learners, and bilingual teachers are part of the reason for the school's success, TiZA argues.
All but six teachers are in compliance, and those six -- five of whom are bilingual -- have already applied for the appropriate licenses, the school said.
State officials did not respond to a question on Monday about how many similar cases the Department of Education has dealt with in recent years. Most recently, the department deducted $31,000 in aid in January from LoveWorks Academy in Golden Valley for teacher-licensure violations.
But it's unusual for state officials to conduct a site visit when they can compare school staff reports with a list of licensed Minnesota teachers, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. Confusion over licenses can easily result when teachers list alternate names, such as "Mike" vs. "Michael," or when they get married and change their names, he added.
The state had given TiZA until Monday -- 30 days -- to get all its teachers in full compliance. If Education Department officials are not satisfied with the school's explanation and move ahead with deducting state aid, the school could appeal the decision to the state education commissioner and, beyond that, the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The alleged violations could result in a penalty of $994,000, a figure calculated based partly on the number of improperly licensed teachers and the amount of state aid the school receives.
All told, TiZA is expected to receive $4.7 million in state aid for this school year, the department has estimated.
Media reports about alleged religious activity at TiZA sparked a public firestorm last year, prompting the state and ACLU to follow up.
The ACLU's suit, filed in January, argues that the school has created a "pervasively sectarian" atmosphere by allowing Muslim prayer during the school day, allowing teachers to pray with students and enforcing a dress code that conforms to religious law, among other claims. The suit names state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren among other co-defendants, arguing that the state failed to stop the violations.
School officials say they have worked with the state Education Department for months to address concerns, including the way TiZA accommodates religion.
According to the school, state officials are still reviewing a handful of 27 issues raised by the ACLU, including whether TiZA is inappropriately affiliated with religious groups and whether it should be able to schedule classes around Muslim holidays.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016