The first day of school is less than four weeks away. But students at JJ Legacy School in north Minneapolis still do not know where they will report to class.

The charter school is in the process of moving out of Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, which housed Legacy of Dr. Josie R. Johnson Montessori School—known as JJ Legacy—and its predecessor for more than a decade. The church filed to evict the school in May after a year of missed rental payments. 

School leaders describe their decision to stop paying rent as a last-ditch effort to force the church to make long-needed repairs. After years of deferred maintenance, their school had just one set of working bathrooms for more than 100 students, school leaders say. Several classrooms had become unusable due to mold and water damage. And part of the ceiling had collapsed because of a leaky roof.

JJ Legacy served about 110 students last year from prekindergarten through sixth grade. Seventy percent were Black. The school’s educational model centers on “seeing Black children in their full humanity, situated in an education that really liberates them and treats them with the dignity they deserve,” said Tonicia Abdur Salaam, the head of school.

Church leaders declined to respond to specific complaints about conditions inside the school, but said they had made some repairs. They also said many of the maintenance problems were the school’s responsibility.

“Our Lady of Victory made numerous attempts to identify and address maintenance issues, many of which have been resolved at parish expense,” Father Michael Tix, the parochial administrator of Our Lady of Victory, said in a statement. Not receiving rent for more than a year threatened the viability of the parish, he said. 

School supporters staged a Children’s March on July 9, outside the church’s Sunday morning service, to bring attention to their plight. The rally and pending eviction attracted news coverage from Minnesota Public Radio, Kare 11, the Star Tribune, and North News.

But as I learned about the rental dispute, I wondered: How did this happen in the first place? How did we get to a point where children were attending a publicly funded school in a building where ceilings are collapsing? Why is no one making sure kids have access to adequate bathrooms? Whose responsibility is it to make sure children have a safe school environment? And what needs to change to prevent this from happening again?

To find out, I dug into state finance records, court filings, inspection reports, zoning maps, and the minutes of school board meetings. I called experts on charter schools and real estate law.

What I learned: Minnesota charter school law is designed to protect schools’ autonomy. But that sometimes means that volunteer-run school boards are left to navigate murky legal situations on their own.

During the 2022–2023 school year, JJ Legacy had just one set of bathrooms for boys and one for girls. Credit: Tonicia Abdur Salaam | JJ Legacy School

Minnesota has nearly 200 independent publicly funded charter schools, serving more than 67,000 prekindergarten through twelfth-grade students. Some of these schools are popular options for families of color looking for an alternative, culturally affirming environment for their kids. 

Being stuck in a substandard building is not common for such schools, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. But it does happen. Minnesota law does not provide clear tenant protections for schools. The state requires charter schools to attest that their buildings meet basic local, state, and federal standards, but it does not require a comprehensive inspection. And while the state ensures charter schools can pay their monthly rent, it does not provide upfront funds that would help them remodel a new space as a suitable school.

So if a charter school is stuck in a crumbling building, that sometimes means that no one—not the school’s authorizer, not the landlord, and not the state—will step in to help.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, a former Minnesota education commissioner who is now executive director at the education nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute, said that the problems at JJ Legacy demonstrate unintended holes in the law. “No one anticipated a situation like this,” she said.

School leaders say the rental dispute shows something bigger: a disregard for Black children and an independent Black-led school community.

“What are we saying about the Black children that we’re serving in north Minneapolis,” Abdur Salaam asked, “that those conditions were acceptable for them?”

Why do parents send their kids to JJ Legacy?

Bisola Wald, a mother of three JJ Legacy students who also works there as an instructional coach, enrolled her kids after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. She was seeking an environment where her children would not face racial discrimination. 

Her kids have loved it. At the end of the past school year, her sons rated each teacher a perfect 10. When they get sick, they sometimes pretend they are well because they do not want to miss school, she said.

Minnesota test score data show that at JJ Legacy, 4 percent of students met math standards and 15 percent met reading standards in the 2021–2022 school year; Black students scored lower than their peers in Minneapolis Public Schools. In an April report, the school board pointed to a different assessment in which students showed growth in math and reading. “These types of increases show that the school is creating an ‘I can do it’ atmosphere,” the report read. “Students are confident and passionate about learning.”

Wald, who is also a doctoral student in education, said JJ Legacy represents a chance for Black educators and parents to create their own affirming educational space—and spaces like these do not receive equitable resources, she said.

“It’s a sacrifice that you’re making,” she said. “But you gain so much more, at least with our experience, than what you’re losing—until you lose your building.”

How did conditions get so bad in the building?

St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School, adjacent to Our Lady of Victory Church, sat closed for three years until Bright Water Montessori Elementary School moved into its space in 2012.

In 2018, Abdur Salaam arrived, hired as a “turnaround leader.” The school had previously operated under white leadership. When Abdur Salaam started, she recalls that the school was saddled with debt and full of garbage.

Abdur Salaam rebranded the school in honor of local civil rights leader Josie Johnson. The school, now called JJ Legacy, assumed Bright Water Montessori’s lease with the church.

The repair issues built up over time, Abdur Salaam said. But she also pointed to a 2016 report from a commercial inspection company documenting many items in need of repair, including decommissioned urinals, a classroom with a leaking ceiling, and a roof that would soon need replacement. 

Water accumulates on the floor of a classroom at JJ Legacy. Credit: Bego Cisla | JJ Legacy School

By the time JJ Legacy stopped paying rent in May 2022, several classrooms had become unusable due to water damage, Abdur Salaam said. Part of the ceiling had collapsed due to a leaky roof. The school of 110 kids had just one bathroom for boys and one for girls. Entire classes had to line up at the same time for bathroom breaks, a 30-minute ordeal.

JJ Legacy leaders declined Sahan Journal’s request to tour the school, citing the stress of the move.

Throughout the repair disputes, Abdur Salaam said, she questioned whether the church was upholding its values.

“This is the classic What would Jesus do?” she said.

Why didn’t the church just make the repairs?

Our Lady of Victory told Sahan Journal that the church did make some repairs, though it declined to specify what it fixed. Part of the problem was miscommunication, Tix said.

“There were continued misunderstandings about who was responsible for what, and that was never fully resolved,” Tix said in a statement.

What tenant rights do charter schools have?

Not many. Under state law, charter schools are not allowed to own buildings. That means they are all tenants. 

But there are no commercial lease protections for schools. Though landlords are generally responsible for most repairs in Minnesota residential housing, that’s not the case in a commercial lease, said Kwame Osafo-Addo, a staff attorney with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Legal Corps. Structural items like the roof will typically be the landlord’s responsibility, but other items—like bathroom repair—can vary based on the lease. If repair responsibilities are not spelled out in the lease and a lawsuit results, it may be up to a jury to decide who is responsible for what. A school stuck with a bad rental agreement needs to contact a lawyer early, Osafo-Addo said. 

One problem with the bathrooms: stalls that are falling down. Credit: Tonicia Abdur Salaam | JJ Legacy School

But lawyers can be expensive. “We’re already underfunded and fighting for the funds that we have as it is,” said Abdur Salaam. School board meeting minutes indicate JJ Legacy was struggling with cash flow. “The idea of hiring an attorney to help us with this is definitely not our first option.”

What happened with the lease?

The church and Bright Water Montessori signed an initial five-year lease in 2012. After that, the church and school signed extensions every year or two. Once a school has a current, signed lease, it can submit it to the state for lease aid—that is, state funds specifically allocated for charter schools to pay their rent.

But records show they did not sign the lease extension for the 2022–2023 school year until March 2023.

That happened for two reasons, JJ Legacy leaders said: First, the church did not provide them with a lease extension until November. (The church declined to specify when it first provided a lease.) But the JJ Legacy school board refused to sign until the church promised them repairs in writing.

“This year I finally just said enough is enough,” Abdur Salaam said. “I’m not going to do this. You have to have more regard for our children.”

Debris covers the stairs after another partial ceiling collapse in a school entryway. Credit: Bego Cisla | JJ Legacy School

Crown Shepherd, who is now the school board chair, said the board voted in November not to sign a lease without a repair schedule—a decision made without consulting a lawyer.

Without rental funds from the school, Tix said, the church became insolvent and would have to shut its doors on September 1. He described the church as a small congregation that “relies on rental income as a major source of funding to maintain the school building and operate the parish.” 

Ultimately, fearing eviction, school leaders signed the lease extension without a repair schedule. But they still did not pay the rent; they had to apply for lease aid and wait for the state funding to come through. The church filed for eviction in housing court on May 3, and at the end of June received a court order to evict.

By late July, JJ Legacy had applied for and received the previous year’s lease aid from the Minnesota Department of Education. At that point, Tix said, the church and school reached an agreement to pay the back rent. That agreement also gave the school more time to move out.

Who at the school is responsible for making decisions about leases?

The school board. But charter school board members are volunteers, and at times these boards struggle with high turnover.

These volunteer bodies do not always know how to negotiate a lease, which makes it important to consult a real estate lawyer, Piccolo said.

Minutes of JJ Legacy school board meetings show that in the same November meeting when the board voted not to sign the lease, board membership dropped from five to three. By March, only one voting board member remained: Crown Shepherd.

And at the same time that the school was contending with eviction and board membership was dwindling, Abdur Salaam was facing an ongoing family emergency. That confluence of events meant that the school’s leadership capacity was constrained at a critical time.

The elevator at JJ Legacy has been out of order for years. “We can’t accept certain students with disabilities, because we don’t have a working elevator for them,” said Crown Shepherd, the school board chair. Credit: Tonicia Abdur Salaam | JJ Legacy School

Is it okay for a charter school to have only one board member?

No. Under Minnesota law, at least five people must serve on a charter school board, a mix of parents, teachers, and community members. And under federal and state law, all nonprofits—including charter schools—must have a minimum of three board members to maintain their tax-exempt status.

“We’ve been so immersed with the lease issue that we haven’t had a chance to recruit when we lost board members,” Shepherd said.

If a school finds itself in violation of this requirement, it does not face an immediate penalty—but the authorizer and state may step in to try to help. 

Kevin Burns, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education, said his agency works with authorizers to “assist them in rectifying the situation” once they become aware a charter school board has dipped below its required minimum membership.

John Stiles, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, said that his office is generally responsible for enforcing charities law, including the minimum number of nonprofit board members, but may be unaware of issues at charter schools that are not required to register with the Attorney General’s Office unless someone files a complaint.

Erin Anderson, the director of charter school authorizing at Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center, the school’s authorizer, said that JJ Legacy has had trouble retaining board members, given its financial and legal struggles.

“The school has really done a remarkable job with the resources that they have to make that school a really beautiful space for learning and for the children who get an education there,” Anderson said. 

What kinds of government regulations are in place to make sure a school is up to code?

The school has to meet basic federal, state, and local requirements. But it doesn’t have to pass a comprehensive inspection. In Minneapolis, a charter school must have an annual fire inspection and an unannounced kitchen inspection. State requirements include testing drinking water for lead and developing a plan for asbestos management.

Abdur Salaam said that the repair problems at the school did not surface in the required paperwork. “The things that we’ve been complaining about don’t show up in an inspection in that way,” she said.

JJ Legacy School leaders positioned trash cans around the school to catch water from leaky ceilings. At one point, they had 14 trash cans full of water, Tonicia Abdur Salaam said. Credit: Tonicia Abdur Salaam | JJ Legacy School

Why didn’t the school just move?

The school had been looking for another space since she arrived in 2018, Abdur Salaam said. Staying in north Minneapolis is a priority for school leaders. And it proved difficult to find something that checked all the boxes: a space that fit their budget, contained the appropriate space for a school, and was located in the right area.

Anderson, at Osprey Wilds, said that finding an appropriate space is often a challenge for charter schools. Lease aid covers monthly rent, but not the initial investment to develop a school.

“It takes a lot of upfront capital to create those spaces and make them into charter schools,” she said. Many available spaces would require work and money to convert them into an educational setting. “JJ Legacy does not have the capital to make those investments.”

Who oversees the school? Can’t they do anything to help?

The school’s authorizer, Osprey Wilds, oversees JJ Legacy and more than 30 other schools—making it the largest authorizer in the state. The authorizer’s role is to monitor the  schools’ academic, financial, operational, and student performance, Anderson said. But the authorizer cannot intervene in day-to-day school operations.

“An authorizer’s role is mainly about preserving a school’s autonomy and upholding accountability on behalf of students and the public,” she said.

Anderson said that referring legal support to the school falls outside of an authorizer’s scope.

“Being able to make decisions and hire an attorney and all of those things, that is part of the school’s autonomy,” she said.

The state, in turn, oversees the authorizer. But it also has no authority to intervene in charter school rental disputes. “This is a situation out of the control/purview of MDE,” Burns said. 

Anderson said the church called her several times asking her to make the school pay the rent. But she had no legal authority to do that, she said. 

Osprey Wilds has the responsibility for holding schools accountable for the use of public funds—that is, the taxpayer dollars that fund the school. “However, given the condition of the building and JJ Legacy’s good-faith effort to work with the landlord to address those challenges, we believe that the school has acted in the best interest of children and the public,” Anderson said.

So what needs to change?

Ricker, the former Minnesota education commissioner, said that the story of JJ Legacy presents an opportunity to work with charter schools to brainstorm what may be missing in the inspection and certification process.

“You’re already supposed to test for lead and have a kitchen inspection,” she said. “Now let’s walk through a few buildings and say, what did we miss?”

She acknowledged that the authorizer and the state do not have authority to intervene in situations like the rental dispute at JJ Legacy. But, she said, these oversight entities could still be more proactive and creative in helping the school to find solutions.

“We still have an opportunity to do something on behalf of a school community that may then help other school communities in the future,” she said.

Piccolo said the law should clarify what kinds of leases are permissible for charter schools, and how schools can use lease aid. Over the years, some charter schools have become stuck in leases that make them responsible for all building upkeep—and lease aid cannot be used for building maintenance, he said.

He’d also like to see required training for charter school boards in lease negotiations, and a process for schools to request an inspection if landlords are not fulfilling their requirements. In his view, some of these problems could be avoided if charter schools were allowed to own property. 

For Bisola Wald, the school parent and instructional coach, the solutions will require more foundational change. 

“I think that will take a lot of listening to Black teachers and other teachers of color,” she said. 

What’s next for JJ Legacy?

School leaders are packing up and moving out of Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church. They say they have found a new space, but have not yet announced where it is. The first day of school for prekindergarten and kindergarten students is September 5. First- through sixth-grade students are scheduled to start classes the next day.

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...