JJ Legacy School, a Montessori charter school in north Minneapolis, will move into Family Baptist Church before classes start September 5. The move comes after a rental dispute and eviction that showed holes in state law. Credit: David Pierini | North News

JJ Legacy School has a new home. Starting this fall, JJ Legacy, a Montessori charter school that serves about 110 kids from prekindergarten through sixth grade, will be located at Family Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.

The announcement, two weeks before the first day of school, comes after a stressful summer that included an eviction from the Catholic church that previously housed the school and another rental agreement falling through.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Tonicia Abdur Salaam, the head of school. “We get to start new.”

The leaders of Legacy of Dr. Josie R. Johnson Montessori School—JJ Legacy for short—said they stopped paying rent last year in a last-ditch effort to force their landlord, Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, to make much-needed repairs. They also said they could not apply for lease aid from the state because Our Lady of Victory did not provide them with a current lease. The standoff ended in housing court, where Our Lady of Victory won an eviction order.

Over the years, JJ Legacy School leaders said, ceilings collapsed due to a leaky roof. Most school bathrooms and some classrooms became unusable due to damage. In a previous statement to Sahan Journal, Father Michael Tix, the parochial administrator of Our Lady of Victory, said the church had made some repairs, but declined to specify which ones. He added that not receiving rent for more than a year threatened the viability of the parish. “There were continued misunderstandings about who was responsible for what, and that was never fully resolved,” Tix said.

A Sahan Journal investigation found that the JJ Legacy rental dispute revealed holes in state law. Minnesota does not allow charter schools to own property. But the state also does not provide specific tenant rights in commercial leases—including for schools. 

If it is not clear who is responsible for a specific repair, a jury may have to decide responsibility if the dispute ends up in court. The state provides funding for charter schools to pay rent. But that money cannot be used either to make repairs in an existing building or to convert a new building into a suitable school. And at charter schools, the people responsible for navigating this murky legal terrain are school board members, who are typically volunteers with no training in commercial lease negotiation.

Family Baptist Church, the school’s new landlord, was founded in 1996, and says it strives “to become a healthy church that plants and restores churches in the Twin Cities”—that is, to create new churches and strengthen existing ones.

Abdur Salaam described Family Baptist Church as “extremely collaborative.”  Even before they signed the lease on Friday, Family Baptist Church allowed JJ Legacy to hold its training week in the new space, she said. Staff walked through the classrooms, which previously held other charter schools, and started mapping out what would go where. 

Abdur Salaam was pleased to see amenities like whiteboards and multiple electrical outlets in each classroom, which Our Lady of Victory did not have. She hopes to collaborate with other organizations nearby, like the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, and a fellow charter school, the Minnesota Internship Center. And she expressed gratitude for her staff, who helped keep the school going while Abdur Salaam has been tending to her husband in hospice care.

Some families have decided to leave, always a risk when a school moves, Abdur Salaam said. Some have expressed concern about safety. The school is staying in north Minneapolis, a priority for school officials, but it will now be in a different neighborhood three and a half miles away. But she said she’s talked to other nearby organizations who have locked down their buildings for safety reasons only three times since 2016.

“I locked the other building at least 10 times in the last couple of years, so in that regard we had more issues in our old location,” she said. Still, she said, the school was lining up security precautions. “We’re always going to make sure our children are protected and well,” she said. “The better job we do at that, the more the community can heal.”

She’d like a public apology from Our Lady of Victory, she said. But she’s focused on moving into the new space.

“Doesn’t matter how great your pedagogy is, doesn’t matter how much impact you have on children and families—none of that matters if you don’t have a roof over your head to do the things you know work right,” she said. “Our children deserve beautiful spaces just like anyone else’s children. I’m not going to apologize for that.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...