In the latest blow for Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, the beleaguered charter school faces a hefty -- but greatly reduced -- fine for teacher-licensure violations.

TiZA will lose $139,800 in state aid for employing eight teachers who did not have proper licenses this spring, said state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren in a ruling issued Wednesday. That's down from 23, the number of teachers that state officials said were out of compliance with state law after a surprise classroom inspection in March. The school was told at the time that the violations could result in a penalty of $994,000.

State officials reported that improperly licensed staff members, often aides or employees with short-call substitute licenses, were teaching subjects from math to gym.

"The principle at stake is the quality of the teachers in front of the children in the classroom," said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the department. The state believes all of TiZA's teachers are now in compliance with the law, he said.

The ruling calls for state officials to begin withholding the funding on Dec. 15. However, the school said it plans to appeal Seagren's decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The department has fined a public school for licensing violations once before in the past five years. LoveWorks Academy for the Performing Arts of Golden Valley lost $31,000 in January, reduced from an original $320,000.

"Normally, they don't get this far -- these discussions about teacher licensure," Walsh said. The fine that Seagren announced against TiZA is what happens "when we allow a school or district to fix the problem, and then it just doesn't get fixed," he said.

School disagrees with finding

In a statement, the school said it disagrees with the commissioner's finding that it had failed to meet a state deadline to resolve the licensure issues.

Seagren's decision comes at a time of protracted controversy for TiZA, a K-8 charter school with about 480 students at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. The public school is battling the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota in court over allegations that it promotes Islam in violation of the Constitution. It has also faced months of close scrutiny from the state.

On March 19, education department officials made unannounced visits to TiZA, where they found 23 teachers out of about 40 total lacked proper licenses.

The school's executive director, Asad Zaman, has said TiZA has struggled to find enough teachers with Minnesota licenses who speak languages such as Somali, Urdu and Farsi. More than 70 percent of TiZA's students are English language learners, and the school credits the academic success of its students partly to bilingual teachers.

TiZA officials responded that some of the 23 teachers actually did have the right licenses, while others would seek appropriate licensure or be reassigned, state records indicate. But in June, the state told the school 14 teachers were still out of compliance. As a result, the school would lose $530,000 in state aid, they said.

The school appealed the decision to Seagren this summer. She reduced the fine because she determined state officials did not properly notify TiZA about the status of some teachers and failed to supply enough evidence of violations for others, according to a statement from the department.

Because of the school's licensing problems, the education department has also withheld two federal grants totaling $875,000.

The state has not yet determined what will happen with that money, Walsh said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016