Teachers at the Legacy of Dr. Josie R. Johnson Montessori have spent the last few days trying to explain to students why Friday is the last day of their school.

"You can feel what they are feeling," said Marlisha Newell, a paraprofessional for the second-grade class. "It's been really heavy."

Last week, the north Minneapolis charter school's board voted in an emergency meeting to shutter the school after a grim financial presentation by the school's authorizer, Osprey Wilds.

"Given the significant debt from previous years and cash flow restrictions for the remaining school year, the Board was left with no other choice," Erin Anderson, Osprey Wilds' director of charter school authorizing, wrote in a statement. "Osprey Wilds is glad that the children and families of JJ Legacy, as well as staff, are able to transition to other schools and an orderly closure of the school can now occur."

At the end of last month, the Minnesota Department of Education informed the school, called JJ Legacy for short, that it was in a status known as "statutory operating debt." According to the agency's letter, the school reported having a negative fund balance of more than $710,000. The school had reported to the state a projected enrollment of 183 students but was serving fewer than 60.

School officials pointed to a sudden move as one reason for the drop in enrollment and the difference between the projection and the number of pupils this fall.

Anderson said an audit of the school's finances for fiscal year 2022 is underway.

Tonicia Abdur Salaam, head of the school, said she had stepped down to take care of her ailing husband.

"I am saddened by the news that JJ has to close and I am so proud of the legacy that has been rooted in children being seen as fully human," Salaam said in a text message.

The school was known as Bright Water Montessori in 2012 and was renamed in Johnson's honor in 2020. In recent years, it offered tuition-based preschool in addition to the K-6 charter school. According to state data, about 20% of its students met state standards in reading; 11% met standards in math in 2023.

Last summer, the school was forced to move after a longstanding dispute with its former landlord, Our Lady of Victory. The church moved to evict the school for outstanding rent payments, which school leaders said they withheld because critical repairs — including leaking ceilings and unusable bathrooms — went unaddressed.

JJ Legacy opened in its new location, at Family Baptist Church in the Jordan neighborhood, in September. But the move to the other end of north Minneapolis drove several families away, administrators said at the time.

Ka Richards said the new location was part of what drew her to the school. She enrolled three of her children this fall. Richards said she's frustrated that the school is closing and worried about people's assumptions about the reasons for its abrupt end since it largely serves Black students on the North Side.

"I loved that this was a North Side school that celebrated the ethnic backgrounds of my kids, who are Black and Asian," Richards said. "I know the students felt so affirmed here. That can be hard to find again, but I'm hopeful."

Like many of the families at JJ Legacy, she is now looking at enrolling her children at Excell Academy for Higher Learning, a charter school in Brooklyn Park. School staff is helping families find new schools and make the transition.

That has meant some tough conversations among students who are realizing that they may not end up at the same school as their friends.

"I'm not used to being the new kid," said sixth-grader Nyree Ranzy who may enroll in Excell or Hopkins schools. "I've been thinking a lot to prepare for that. JJ Legacy is where I grew up, so I'm sad to leave it."

On a recent morning, Newell and second-grade teacher Kandice Childs facilitated conversations to help students say goodbye to their peers, their teachers and their school.

The topic shifted to why the school was closing and one student quietly said that she didn't have much money saved, but if she did, she'd give it to the school. Another student piped up, wondering if his birthday money was enough to help JJ Legacy stay open.

"It's the fact that this community is breaking up that is hurting me," Childs said as tears welled in her eyes. "I just feel like the work shouldn't be over like this — snatched away."

Newell handed her a tissue.

"They'll be OK," Newell said. "No matter where they go, they carry with them what they've learned."