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Heritage Academy board sues Minneapolis Public Schools

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Heritage Academy of Science and Technology
Heritage Academy of Science and Technology in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, March 5, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The board of a Minneapolis alternative school wracked by internal divisions is suing Minneapolis Public Schools, just days after the district cancelled its contract.

The school district is set to assume direct management of the Heritage Academy of Science and Technology on Nov. 1, after alleged irregularities and conflicts of interest by the nonprofit school's board members.

Upset about the district's move, Heritage Academy's board of directors filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking a temporary injunction to prevent the district's takeover.

"A takeover by Minneapolis Public Schools will irreparably change the educational program and mission of the school," board member Mohamed Galony said in an affidavit. "I've received notice from as many as 80 students and their parents that they intend to leave the school."

Heritage Academy, whose students are mostly Somali, has operated as an independent nonprofit for 7 years.

The school's board members, parents and staff have clashed since June, when the board decided not to renew the contract of former school director Abdirashid Abdi for the 2015-16 school year. 

On June 30, parents upset about the board's decision filled the school's auditorium, demanding answers.

The exchange between parents and board members was so intense, one board member left the meeting while it was still in session. 

Unlike district schools that are governed by an elected school board, alternative schools like Heritage Academy don't have an external election process. According to its bylaws, the board itself elects new members.

"That's where the parents are concerned," Leslie Lewandowski, director of the Minneapolis school district's contract alternative schools, told MPR News after the June meeting. "They do not feel that they have a voice on the board. They feel like the board self-selects specific people."

In September, Minneapolis Public Schools sent a letter to Heritage Academy, alleging concerns of "significant irregularities related to Board members."  

Minneapolis Public Schools funds and provides academic guidance at its contract alternative schools, which are run by community nonprofits and have independent authority to hire their own staff. 

Students can transfer to contract alternative schools if they face academic challenges in the traditional school system.  

The letter cited a failure to submit board minutes and a lack of a plan for paying back more than $64,000 it owes the district. It gave the board 10 days to respond. 

"About the debt that Heritage owes to MPS District, it is established through long discussion about the size of the debt," the board said in its response to the letter. "MPS and Heritage had been working with that number, and Heritage was able to prove that District has been wrong sometimes."

On Oct. 22, the district announced that it would be terminating its contract with Heritage Academy. The district said in its termination letter that it had reviewed the board's response and "determined that it didn't provide satisfactory cures or plans to cure the areas of default."

Principal Jean Sorensen said Tuesday that the transition from board governance to district governance wouldn't be evident for students next week.

"Students will see the same teachers in their classroom, the school day will look the same, the school calendar will look the same," she said.

Heritage Academy has been in contract with Minneapolis Public Schools since 2008.