ACLU releases hundreds of documents in TiZA case

Kindergarten students study Arabic
Kindergarten students study Arabic at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in a 2007 file photo. The ACLU of Minnesota released hundreds of documents Monday in its case against the now-shuttered charter school.
MPR file Photo/Laura McCallum

The ACLU of Minnesota released hundreds of documents Monday in its case against a now-closed charter school, after a judge approved the release last week.

The group claims the depositions, emails and other files help show that its nearly three-year old claims against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy are true.

"There is an overwhelming amount of documented evidence — by people who testified under oath in here — that these facts are as we have alleged they were," said ACLU-MN executive director Chuck Samuelson in a news conference.

The documents were compiled as what's called a 'stipulation of fact.' They are the final salvos in the ACLU's settlement between the two other parties it sued along with TiZA in 2009: the Minnesota Department of Education and Islamic Relief, TiZA's former sponsor.

As part of that settlement, the Department of Education will now require all charter schools to submit a form that discloses any religious entanglements.

In a statement, spokesperson Charlene Briner said the department is pleased that the matter is settled and is "committed to continue our efforts to provide a high quality education for all Minnesota students that is consistent with the law."

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But Samuelson says the documents also vindicate what his organization has been saying all along, namely that TiZA "illegally transferred money to its religious landlords, promoted Islam through its Arabic curriculum and its connection to the after-school religious program, and used taxpayer funds in excess of $1 million to renovate buildings to the benefit of their religious landlords." The lawsuit can now focus on one party instead of three, he said.

Chuck Samuelson
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, speaks to reporters Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, during which he released new documents related to his group's lawsuit against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a now-shuttered charter school.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Shamus O'Meara, a lawyer for TiZA, called Monday's document release "a bunch of noise" that only serves to spin and taint any potential jury pool in the trial. He added the ACLU had "cherry-picked items" to prejudge TiZA.

O'Meara also claimed there's no legal basis to go forward, given TiZA closed this summer after the state rejected its bid to transfer to a new charter school sponsor. TiZA's former director, Asad Zaman, echoed that sentiment.

"Having succeeded in killing one of the most successful charter schools in the state, why and how is this a live case and controversy? Why is this case not moot? Why have they not withdrawn this case; why are they beating this dead horse?" Zaman said.

The case is scheduled to go to trial next month, but it's unclear whether that will happen.

"There's not a great likelihood of going to trial in this case," noted Katie Pfeifer, a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, which is helping the ACLU with the case. She noted TiZA filed for bankruptcy shortly before closing, and those proceedings are still ongoing, which leave the ACLU's case in limbo for now.

But Samuelson added it's important for the case to proceed, because a ruling would set legal precedent that charter schools could use if they plan to affiliate themselves with religious organizations.

"I would hope that we would get a federal court to say 'charter schools cannot do A,B, or C,' or something — and there would be a bright line that would provide guidance — not just to the ACLU going forward, but to every charter school in this state," Samuelson said.

Samuelson added the ACLU is looking at 12 to 15 other charter schools in Minnesota who have affiliations with religious groups to see if any of those examples are "TiZA-like." He refused to name the schools, adding the group is still investigating.

But Zaman scoffed at the idea of using TiZA to set case law, saying that's impossible to do against entities that no longer exist.

"TiZA is dead," he asserted. "What they asked for in their lawsuit is an injunction preventing TiZA from doing certain actions. By being dead — we're prevented from doing all actions."