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Published in Print: January 30, 2002, as Muslim-Led Schools Say Sept. 11 Affected Charter Decision

Muslim-Led Schools Say Sept. 11 Affected Charter Decision

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A lawyer for a Muslim-led group of charter schools based in Fresno, Calif., is calling a decision to revoke the school's charter a reaction to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, and is seeking a court injunction that would allow the schools to continue receiving public funds.

Sept. 11 "was definitely influential in their decision," said Akil K. Secret, an Atlanta-based lawyer who is representing the Gateway Academy. "I think the decision was clearly politically motivated."

But officials from the Fresno Unified School District said problems at the K-12 school—which had expanded to satellite campuses throughout the state without the district's knowledge— started long before the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Information compiled by the district, which cut off all funding to the schools on Jan. 16, outlined numerous financial, educational, and safety violations.

According to a letter from Fresno Superintendent Santiago V. Wood to state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, none of the sites had clearance from fire marshals to operate, more than half of Gateway's 162 employees were working without criminal-background checks, and two of them were convicted felons.

Gateway Visit

A visit to a Gateway site by a district representative in October also revealed exposed wiring, holes in floors, and a window covered with cardboard.

"It's not like Gateway didn't know this was coming," said Jill Marmolejo, a spokeswoman for the district.

She added that a preliminary audit of the school's finances showed a deficit of nearly $1 million on Sept. 6, and that officials at the school repeatedly missed deadlines for submitting documents to the district.

While district officials also heard reports that the Koran was being taught at one of the campuses in Silicon Valley, Ms. Marmolejo said they did not personally witness the teaching of religion, which is prohibited at charter schools.

In fact, she said, officials were initially impressed by what they saw in the classroom.

Without public funds, Gateway, which serves more than 600 students, is operating as a "private, voluntary school," the spokeswoman said, and added that while the school can become independent, she doubts that many of the parents could afford to pay tuition.

While some students from Gateway have transferred back into the Fresno schools since the board's decision, Mr. Secret said there had not been a large exodus from the school.

Rapid Expansion

Gateway Academy was founded in 2000 by residents of Baladullah, a small, predominantly Muslim village located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and within the Fresno school district.

The school quickly began opening additional satellite campuses, including one in Pomona in Los Angeles County and one in Oakland. At one point, the school had a total of 14 campuses, but currently has 11, four of which are in Fresno County.

"There was chronic opening, closing, and moving of campuses," Ms. Marmolejo said.

Mr. Secret said that he believes the board's decision was premature, and that district officials did not give the relatively new school a chance to correct the problems or to have an independent audit conducted.

The district's deadline for the audit was Jan. 4, after it granted the charter school an extension.

"Their action is not consistent with actions taken by other boards" in disputes with charter schools, he said. "There was no auditing firm that was willing or capable of producing an audit before January 4."

But Gary Larson, a spokesman for the San Carlos-based California Network of Educational Charters, a membership organization, said the group was "satisfied with the level of oversight and the patience" with which Fresno handled the situation.

He added that while charter school advocates do not want additional restrictions placed on their schools, the organization is pondering legislation that would keep charter schools from opening campuses without first notifying the district that granted their charters.

"It is essential for all schools to notify their authorizing district, but it's obviously clear that Gateway wasn't doing that," Mr. Larson said.

Vol. 21, Issue 20, Page 7

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