The truth behind TiZA

Asad Zaman at TiZA in 2007

Asad Zaman at TiZA in 2007

This past June, dozens of students packed into the gymnasium of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy for an end-of-the-year awards ceremony. Rows of Muslim children dressed in powder-blue uniforms and traditional Islamic head scarves sat on the floor as Asad Zaman, the school's executive director, honored the academy's best and brightest.

A Bangladeshi immigrant with dark eyes and a calculated goatee, Zaman handed out trophies for good grades, model citizenship, and high test scores. He posed for photographs with students in front of a TiZA banner displaying the school's dedication to "preserving our values and achieving academic excellence."

The assembly was an annual event at TiZA, a charter school founded in 2003 and named for the Muslim conqueror who took Spain in the eighth century, but the past year had been a particularly tough one. Since January 2009, TiZA had been at war with the American CivilLiberties Union, and now the school's charter authorization was set to expire. Concerned students asked their teachers if the school was going to close.

"We tried not to stress the kids out," says Heidi Pendroy, a first-grade teacher at TiZA since fall 2005.

On the last day of school, a parade of parents approached their children's teachers to say farewell for perhaps the last time.

"Sister, I hope we see you again," one mom said to Christa Ragatz, an elderly white woman who'd been teaching first grade for the past two years.

Ahmad El Bendary sponsored TiZA

Ahmad El Bendary sponsored TiZA

"I hope I see you again too, sister," Ragatz responded.

The teachers shared the same concerns about TiZA's future, despite Zaman's assurances that the school would survive. In staff meetings, Zaman told his teachers that there was a "99 percent" chance TiZA would re-open in the fall.

"I remember talking to other staff members and saying, 'It must be the opposite,'" says Tamer Abdelaziz, an Egyptian teacher's aide who worked at TiZA for six years.

Sara Wright, a young teacher who began her career at TiZA, remembers waving goodbye to her students as they boarded the school bus and thinking, "This is probably the last time I'm ever going to see you."

When the school closed on June 30, its teachers hustled to find new jobs for the fall. What no one expected was for the school to declare bankruptcy after it closed, meaning that the teachers wouldn't be paid for work they'd already done.

"We were always told not to worry," says Justin Feldkamp, a gym teacher at TiZA. "It turns out they didn't even pay us the money we actually worked for. It just stinks to eat that payment."

On July 31, 2002, Zaman filed the application to create TiZA. Minnesota law requires anyone who plans to open a charter school to find a nonprofit willing to vouch for the charter and monitor it. So Zaman took a trip to Chicago in search of a sponsor.

Zaman attended the Muslim American Society conference in the Windy City, where he met with Ahmad El Bendary, the founder and CEO of Islamic Relief USA. El Bendary, a portly engineer who resembles an Egyptian Santa Claus, agreed to meet with Zaman and Hesham Hussein, a co-founder of the school.

The men sat down for "maybe 20 minutes" of coffee, remembers El Bendary in a deposition, during which Zaman and Hussein made their pitch for the school.

El Bendary didn't know the Twin Cities well, having just made his first visit the previous year, but Islamic Relief had a number of donors in the area and wanted to help the growing Somali community.

"I did believe after the conversation that one of the best ways to pay back the community and serve them is through this idea of sponsoring the charter school," El Bendary testified.

El Bendary discussed Islamic Relief's responsibilities with Zaman and Hussein, and was assured that the sponsor's job was simply to oversee the school's financial health and academic progress.

"That is it," El Bendary understood. "That's all of it."

A couple of weeks after the meeting, El Bendary took a call from Zaman asking him to affirm that he'd sponsor TiZA. El Bendary agreed. "It's a great project and there's no liability basically," El Bendary figured.

Before the Department of Education will accept a charter school's sponsor, the sponsor must retain a "monitor" responsible for supervising the school. The school recruited Wayne Jennings, a white hair of the charter school movement with over 50 years of experience in education.

Chuck Samuelson sued the school

Chuck Samuelson sued the school

Jennings's colleagues in the charter school movement were concerned about the school, and took their complaints to the state Department of Education. "There were complaints that this might be a school for terrorists, or it might have connections with enemies of the United States and that it might be a school for training people in anti-democratic values," Jennings recalled in his deposition.

Joe Nathan, another of the founding fathers of the charter school movement, had additional concerns. Nathan was afraid that if TiZA floundered, it would "jeopardize the [charter school] movement."

(Nathan declined to be interviewed for this article but denies that those were his concerns, saying he was primarily worried about Islamic Relief being an out-of-state organizer.)

After some investigation, Jennings decided that the concerns about TiZA and Islamic Relief were "irrational." Jennings negotiated his consulting fee with TiZA, first requesting $1,400 a month before being talked down to $800.

"When I took on the job of being the sponsor monitor, I said I was going to do the job correctly," Jennings says.

Jennings assured his good friend Nathan that everything would be okay.

"Of course I don't want to jeopardize the charter movement," Jennings wrote in an email.

Not long after opening, TiZA became the education darling of the Twin Cities media. Minnesota Monthly wrote a glowing profile of Zaman and TiZA headlined "Brother's Keeper." The Star Tribune recognized TiZA three years in a row for "beating the odds."

Before long, the school was attracting more than poor Somali students: Congressman Keith Ellison enrolled his youngest child at TiZA. Ellison calls Zaman a "personal friend" with whom he "occasionally" meets up to talk politics. The two have traveled the world together. In December 2008, Zaman accompanied the congressman to Saudi Arabia on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip cost $13,350 and was paid for by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, which Zaman co-founded. Ellison chose to keep the price tag to himself.

"Initially I was not required to release the dollar amount of the trip," Ellison says in a statement. "When the House Ethics Committee revised its guidance and asked me to disclose the trip's cost I did so promptly."

Ellison remains a committed supporter of the school to this day and laments its closing.

"TiZA had some of the best test scores in the country for children living in poverty, and yet the ACLU was determined to shut the school down," Ellison says in a written statement. "At a time when Minnesota has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the largest achievement gaps between students of color and white students, it is disappointing that the ACLU did not regard TiZA's accomplishment important enough to try to preserve the best aspects of the school."

But there was more controversy to come. In March 2008, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten penned a piece suggesting taxpayers were footing the bill for an "Islamic school." That spawned a national controversy, with critics in the conservative blogosphere dubbing it the "Minnesota madrassa."

TiZA took an aggressive stance against the accusation that it was an Islamic public school. Khalid Elmasry, a former parent at TiZA, recalls accompanying Zaman to the Star Tribune offices for a meeting with editors to complain about the column.

At the meeting, Zaman demanded that Kersten be fired, according to Elmasry.

Zaman was similarly confrontational when KSTP-TV sent reporters to TiZA two months later. Zaman had a problem with a previous report on the school the station had aired, so he blew off the interview request. KSTP sent reporter Chris O'Connell and his cameraman anyway. The two were filming a group of happy schoolchildren when Zaman rushed out of the school and shoved the videographer in a scene that played well on that night's broadcast.

"Now to a developing story: Our news crew's attack while covering a controversial charter school," led KSTP anchor John Mason.

Then the ACLU of Minnesota got involved. ACLU executive director Chuck Samuelson fielded dozens of phone calls from members requesting he look into Kersten's allegations that the school was in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Samuelson was cautious at first because of concerns that Kersten wasn't exactly an unbiased reporter. "Frequently we have found that Katherine Kersten's version of the facts didn't comport with what we found when we did the research," Samuelson says.

Still, Samuelson approached Dorsey and Whitney attorneys to ask if they'd be interested in looking into the complaints about TiZA. Soon after, the ACLU started receiving "ham-handed" phone calls from TiZA parents urging them to wrap up their investigation, Samuelson says.

"There's nothing wrong with our school," the parents protested.

But after several months, Dorsey attorneys came to the conclusion that there was something terribly wrong at TiZA.

"So we filed," Samuelson says. "And this thing turns into this war."

Sitting in his cluttered office behind scattered papers and folders, Samuelson says he never expected the lawsuit to become the biggest in the Minnesota ACLU's history. The suit, filed in January 2009, continues on and contains 700 filings at last count. It names Islamic Relief and the Department of Education as co-defendants. It has cost the ACLU more than $300,000, and that's with pro bono legal representation.

"This is more than we've spent on all of our previous cases in the last 60 years combined," Samuelson says.

The complaint accuses TiZA of violating the separation of church and state. It also claims that the school has a secrecy oath mandating "that information about the operations of TiZA be withheld from the public."

The case notes that the school was founded by leaders of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, which held an after-school "Muslim studies" program with prayer sessions at the school. Although the school day ended at 3:30 p.m., school buses didn't leave until an hour later, when the Muslim Studies class ended.

The school was also accused of hosting monthly student assemblies where students cheered "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is greatest." Zaman later testified that he gave students a choice; they could also choose to clap or chant "Hip hip hooray."

Samuelson initially thought TiZA's attorneys would meet with the ACLU's legal team and find a compromise.

"All we wanted to get done was separate the religion from the school," Samuelson says. "I assumed this was going to be like every other church-and-state case we've ever gotten."

The first inkling that this wasn't going to be a typical case came when TiZA and Asad Zaman filed a countersuit against the ACLU and Samuelson. "They sued on defamation," Samuelson says.

TiZA's countersuit, which also included charges that the ACLU's action had damaged the school's ability to get future contracts, has since been dismissed.

But that counterclaim set the stage for the battle to come and upped the ante for the ACLU. If TiZA wanted a fight, the ACLU would pursue the case until it got a ruling from the court that would ensure no other charter school would ever become so entangled with religion again.

"We wanted a bright-line decision," Samuelson says.

Shortly after Katherine Kersten wrote her column, Wayne Jennings stepped up to defend TiZA in a letter to the editor printed by the Star Tribune. After the ACLU filed its lawsuit, Jennings distributed a statement criticizing the civil liberties group.

"As the person responsible for supervising Tarek ibn Ziyad charter school and a longtime member of the ACLU, TiZA is an excellent, law-abiding school," Jennings wrote. "I'm a strong believer in separation of church and state, have visited the school many times, and find that they are following the law."

To this day, Jennings insists the school is being unfairly targeted by anti-Muslim bigots.

"It's a story of discrimination and persecution based on the Katherine Kersten type of thinking," Jennings says.

On the surface, Jennings makes for a compelling character witness: As the independent monitor who supervised TiZA, he would be in a prime position to evaluate the ACLU's allegations.

But Jennings had significant unreported entanglements with the school that might call his judgment into question.

While Jennings was, in theory, working for Islamic Relief to monitor TiZA, he was receiving his paycheck directly from the school, an arrangement criticized as "inappropriate" by Minnesota Association of Charter Schools Executive Director Eugene Piccolo.

"Whoever you get your check from, you're accountable to," Piccolo says.

The arrangement became more complicated in June 2006, when TiZA co-founder Hesham Hussein approached Jennings to give him an "end-of-the-year bonus" of $2,000.

"I didn't want to take it," Jennings says. "I wasn't sure it was right."

Jennings was concerned that the bonus might be seen as a conflict. But Jennings thought about it and figured, "No way can I be bought." So he accepted the money.

"If he's getting a bonus for being an authorized representative, that should be from the authorizer, not the school," Piccolo says.

In spring 2008, Zaman approached Jennings again and asked if he would advise him on management and school administration. Jennings agreed, and Zaman upped his payments by $200 a month for the extra advice. This meant that Jennings was now getting paid to give advice to the very school he was responsible for policing.

Jennings didn't disclose the bonus or the fact that he was being paid to advise Zaman to Islamic Relief or the Department of Education until he was deposed in the ACLU's lawsuit.

Jennings explains that he didn't have much communication with Islamic Relief and didn't feel it was necessary to inform the state.

"Everything I do, I don't go up to the Department of Education," Jennings says. "When you ask me that question, it's like, 'Everything I moved on, did I talk to the Department of Education about that?' No."

Days before El Bendary was scheduled to walk into the downtown Minneapolis office of Dorsey and Whitney for his deposition in the ACLU's lawsuit, he was surprised by the paperwork his attorneys presented to him.

The documents, obtained during discovery in the ACLU lawsuit, were extremely critical for TiZA. Without them, the school might never have been approved by the Department of Education. Included in files Islamic Relief received were records submitted to the Department of Education from Islamic Relief when the school was founded.

The first problem with the documents was that no one at Islamic Relief had seen them before. The second was that El Bendary's signature was forged on the forms.

"They'd misspelled his name," says Timothy Obitts, the attorney who handled the litigation for Islamic Relief.

The documents revealed that TiZA officials had misled El Bendary when they explained the responsibilities of a sponsor to him. One form "signed" by El Bendary affirmed that Islamic Relief was willing to perform numerous tasks beyond simply receiving reports.

Shown the document during his deposition, El Bendary read it before declaring that he had not agreed to the responsibilities it listed. "I would consider that too much," El Bendary testified.

The false signatures are one of the lingering mysteries of TiZA: The school insists in court filings that someone at Islamic Relief must have signed El Bendary's name on his behalf. But Beverly Perez, corporate counsel at Islamic Relief, says the organization contacted all former employees who might have been in a position to sign El Bendary's name and found that no one had done it.

"The school was authorized based upon representations that were made to the Department of Education that did not come from Islamic Relief but were required to come from Islamic Relief," Obitts adds.

During his deposition, El Bendary was asked if he believed anyone at TiZA forged his signatures.

"I really hope not," El Bendary responded.

Lawyers for Islamic Relief declined to speculate on who signed El Bendary's name; El Bendary did not return requests for comment.

TiZA was the first charter school Islamic Relief ever sponsored.

"Hopefully the last one," El Bendary said in his deposition.

On December 29, 2008, a Texas Muslim sent a letter to Asad Zaman at his TiZA office. The letter contained a check for $46,701, which was to go toward "helping the school with the Somali refugee students."

The check was made out to "Tarek Bin Ziyad Academy." Instead of going to TiZA, however, the check was deposited in a bank account of the Minnesota Education Trust, TiZA's landlord.

In his deposition, Zaman claimed that he called the donor after receiving the check, "at which point it became clear that he intended it go to the landlord." So he turned the check over to Asif Rahman, an Egyptian dentist who had been a trustee for TiZA as well as the president of MET, who in turn deposited it in MET's bank account. (Rahman did not return messages seeking comment but his attorney took questions on his behalf.)

"The $46,000 explanation is not a plausible explanation," says Peter Lancaster, head attorney for the ACLU. "Most people who got a check for almost $50,000 and were told, 'I really meant that to go to someone else,' would get a piece of paper to confirm that."

The ACLU contends that the transfer was illegal and points to it as the latest piece of evidence that Zaman, the executive director of TiZA, also operated MET. That allegation is echoed by the Department of Education and Islamic Relief. Zaman "effectively ran MET," according to a recent bankruptcy court filing by Islamic Relief. Zaman scheduled MET's board meetings and planned the agendas. Zaman delivered the organization's financial reports to MET's board of directors and "took care of [MET's] finances and the books."

In fact, Zaman testified that he negotiated the "salient" terms of the school's lease with MET "but could identify no documentary or third party evidence that the lease was anything other than 'collusive.'"

Asad Zaman declined to be interviewed for this story, but Ferdinand Peters, an attorney representing MET, says the check was deposited as a "mistake."

"Mistakes are made all the time in organizations like that," Peters says. "To me, they've been able to take the most minor error and turn it into a conspiracy."

Additionally, the ACLU maintains that TiZA spent $1.4 million in taxpayer money renovating the school for the benefit of MET. The ACLU also raises questions about the lease agreements between TiZA and MET.

"[Zaman] was simultaneously representing tenant and landlord," Lancaster says. "He's taking state money from one entity—the school—that is specifically getting money for lease payments. Through his control in that entity and the landlord, he has interest in moving money from the state entity to the religious entity."

Last June, the ACLU settled its lawsuit with Islamic Relief and the Department of Education. As part of the agreement, the Department of Education now requires every charter school in Minnesota to file an annual report disclosing any religious entanglements.

"We have a lot of transparency and governance concerns about charter schools," Chuck Samuelson says.

The ACLU's lawsuit remains pending but the school is closed and bankrupt. The TiZA building in Inver Grove Heights now houses STEP Academy, a charter school unaffiliated with TiZA that pays rent to MET.

As part of the settlement, the three parties agreed to a stipulation of facts acknowledging the false signatures, the money transfers, the school being renovated "for the benefit of its religious landlords," and that the school did, in fact, promote Islam.

Even though the school has closed, TiZA's bankruptcy case is ongoing and likely to continue for many more months. The bankruptcy court appointed aggressive local attorney John Hedback to be trustee last summer.

Several teachers have filed claims requesting payment for work they did in the final months of TiZA's existence. The teachers are growing frustrated by the fact that they still haven't been paid. Nor have any of TiZA's other creditors, including the ACLU and Islamic Relief.

"There's lots of issues hanging in the air in this case and I can't say when I'm going to make a distribution," Hedback says. "I've got to resolve the issue with the landlord before I can cut the checks to the employees."

Hedback has filed a document in the bankruptcy court declaring his intention to sue MET for money it was paid by TiZA on the basis that there were fraudulent transfers. The trustee confirms that he plans to pursue a claim against MET.

MET attorney Ferdinand Peters says he isn't worried about Hedback's investigation.

"That's his job as a federal bankruptcy trustee," Peters says. "He has great power and great responsibility, and that's what we want him to do."

But there's another potential development that could extend TiZA's lifespan even further. In late fall, the ACLU referred the stipulation of facts to the Dakota County Attorney's Office for possible prosecution.

"We can tell you that the matter is under investigation," says Dakota County Attorney aide Monica Jensen.