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Opening delayed Twin Cities charter school accused of teaching Islam

INVER GROVE HEIGHTS, Minn.—The opening of a charter school in the Twin Cities has been derailed after questions were raised about possible ties to a Muslim organization and a now-defunct charter investigated for teaching Islam.

Summit Charter School was scheduled to open in Inver Grove Heights next month, but Innovative Quality Schools, or IQS, the authorizer charged with overseeing the school, announced Wednesday that it would delay the opening by one year.

Tom Tapper, IQS managing director, said his organization's board voted to delay Summit's opening not because of suspected religious ties, but over concerns about its planned home. The building is already occupied by STEP Academy charter school and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

"Quite frankly, it related to the size; there is already a school there, and it is growing," he said.

But concerns about Summit go deeper than real estate.

The decision not to allow Summit to open comes after a June complaint to the Minnesota Department of Education that claims the new school has close ties to the leaders of the former Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or TiZA, and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

TiZA went bankrupt and then closed in 2011 after a flurry of lawsuits that centered on allegations that the school taught Islam and funneled state money meant to educate students to religious organizations. A lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union was settled in 2012 and included a "stipulation of facts" that essentially acknowledged that the school promoted Islam and funneled some money to faith-based groups.

Federal and state laws prohibit public schools from advancing religious beliefs or financially supporting religious institutions. Minnesota schools are allowed to share or rent space from religious groups as long as there is clear separation between the public school and religious institution.

Magdy Rabeaa, a former TiZA administrator tapped to lead the new Summit school, declined a phone interview but said in an email that no other staff members from TiZA or religious groups are part of the new charter. As of Thursday, Rabeaa wrote that he was Summit's only employee and the school had renewed its search for a school building.

In a letter to the State Department of Education, Tapper reiterated Rabeaa's responses in detail. He said IQS investigated the complaint filed with the state and found no credible links between the new Summit Charter School and TiZA or any religious organizations.

Asad Zaman, the former TiZA executive director who now leads the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said there is no connection between his organization and Summit or any other charter school. He added that academic and religious spaces at the Inver Grove Heights facility are separated.

On July 13, state education leaders decided to delay the new school's first state aid payment until IQS officials assured state leaders that Summit was ready to open.

New entanglement?

Sharmarke "SJ" Hassan said he helped draft the complaint to the state Department of Education about Summit because he feared a repeat of the TiZA saga that was difficult for students and their families, many of whom are recent immigrants.

In addition to allegations that TiZA taught Islam, the ACLU lawsuit said the school made "excessive lease payments" to its landlord that later were sent to religious organizations.

In his complaint to state education leaders and in a phone interview, Hassan said he feared the new Summit Charter School would have the same entanglements as TiZA.

In their response to state education officials, IQS leader Tapper said they found no evidence to support those allegations.

Summit's founders applied July 2 for state aid to make $300,000 in annual lease payments to rent about 23,000 square feet of space from building owner Minnesota Education Trust. TiZA rented the same space from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota for a similar fee, but that rent grew significantly as the school enrolled more students, court records show.

The proposed rental agreement between Summit and the Minnesota Education Trust detailed 14,500 square feet devoted solely to the new school and 8,400 square feet of common area. Summit's lease aid application also said it would pay an additional $7,000 per month for maintenance and utilities.

In the same building as Summit would be the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and STEP Academy, a charter school also authorized by IQS.

In federal tax records, the Minnesota Education Trust describes its mission as "supporting religious centers, community centers and schools." Between 2011 and 2013, the organization gave more than $700,000 to religious schools and organizations in Minnesota, Illinois, New York and New Jersey, tax records show.

Asif Rahman is listed as the principal officer of the Minnesota Education Trust. The ACLU lawsuit detailed Rahman's ties to TiZA and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

Rahman did not respond to a request for comment.

STEP Academy's most recent annual report showed the school made $276,000 in lease payments during the 2013-14 school year for classroom space for about 200 students. The school spent an additional $123,000 on maintenance and utilities at the building.

A STEP Academy school leader was unavailable for comment.

The relationship between the Minnesota Education Trust and its tenants is no different from if a school rented space from a Catholic church that then used those proceeds to fund other activities, Tapper said.

"Quite frankly, I don't see any difference," he added.

IQS officials periodically walk through shared buildings to make sure no religious symbols or other items are displayed in learning spaces, Tapper said. He added that authorizers are not able to critique how much a school pays in rent.

"Our responsibility is to make sure their budget is in line and they can afford it," he said.

Stepped-up oversight

In 2009, state lawmakers overhauled Minnesota's charter school law to put authorizers in the leading compliance role. In turn, the state Department of Education is responsible for credentialing authorizers like IQS and making sure they are properly overseeing their schools.

Charter schools are essentially independent public schools with freedom from some state rules so they can experiment with ways to educate. They receive state aid payments but have limited power to purchase, rent or improve facilities.

After the TiZA lawsuit, state education leaders began requiring charters to submit annual affidavits that they were not tied to religious groups or organizations, said Kevin McHenry, assistant education commissioner. Without those affidavits, the schools cannot receive state aid payments.

Charter school authorizers perform the majority of school oversight, but that doesn't mean state officials cannot step in.

"We have a limited number of staff that do school financial audits," McHenry said. "If there are complaints, that's where further investigation would come into play."

State education leaders have talked repeatedly with IQS since May when the Education Department became aware of concerns about Summit. McHenry said IQS notified the department by phone Wednesday that it would not allow Summit to open in August.

In a Thursday letter to state officials, IQS leaders said they would use the coming year to address any other concerns surrounding the new school, including likely finding a new site.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

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