The Texas Education Agency has opened an investigation into IDEA Public Schools after the charter network discovered misuse of school funds through a financial review. Texas’ largest charter school network ousted two of its top leaders and is working with authorities after a forensic review revealed some administrators used […]
Texas’ largest charter school network ousted two of its top leaders and is working with authorities after a forensic review revealed some administrators used school funds for personal use.
The development comes roughly one year after the IDEA Public Schools charter network awarded a $900,000 buyout to its departing chief executive officer and co-founder Tom Torkelson.
IDEA serves roughly 66,000 students and operates more than 50 K-12 campuses in Texas, primarily in the Rio Grande Valley and the San Antonio area. In 2020, the charter network expanded into Tarrant County, where it now has three locations. IDEA aims to open more than a dozen schools in Tarrant County by 2023-24.
A financial investigation “uncovered substantial evidence that … a small number of IDEA senior leaders directed the use of IDEA financial and staff resources for their personal benefit on multiple occasions,” Board Chair Al Lopez wrote in a letter Tuesday. “Furthermore, their actions appeared to be done in a manner to avoid detection by the standard external audit and internal control processes that the Board had in place at the time.”
Lopez did not specifically detail what the review uncovered, saying the school system couldn’t provide additional information because of “the confidentiality of personnel matters and the involvement of the authorities.”The board directed the school’s attorneys to refer the matter to the “appropriate authorities.” An IDEA spokeswoman declined further comment Tuesday afternoon.
The findings lead the board to end the employment of CEO and superintendent JoAnn Gama, who helped found the charter network, and Chief Operating Officer Irma Munoz. The Dallas Morning News left messages for Gama and Munoz at numbers associated with their names but was not able to reach either in time for publication.
“In light of the evidence compiled,” IDEA is working with the Texas Education Agency and is discussing the potential appointment of a monitor or conservator, Lopez wrote.
The agency uses the appointment of monitors and conservators as a sanction after an investigation reveals wrongdoing in a school system. TEA was recently made aware of IDEA’s internal review and opened an investigation. The agency plans to pursue “all corrective measures available under law to protect the taxpayers of Texas,” according to a TEA statement.
IDEA’s board named Lopez the acting CEO as the charter network searches for new leadership.
The charter network launched the financial review after Torkelson’s departure when an anonymous complainant alleged school leaders were making inappropriate expenditures and misusing school resources. After reviewing the allegations, the board hired special counsel to conduct a legal and forensic review of financial transactions in recent years.
Founded in the 1990s, IDEA operates more than 50 K-12 campuses in Texas, primarily in the Rio Grande Valley and the San Antonio area. In 2020, the charter network expanded into Tarrant County, where it now has four locations. The network also operates four schools in Louisiana and has plans to open campuses in Florida and Ohio within the next two years.
IDEA Public Schools has come under fire in recent years after officials made plans to lease and operate a luxury private jet, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle. School leaders later backtracked on the plan. Further criticism came when reporting revealed the school system had spent $400,000 annually on tickets and box seats at San Antonio’s AT&T Center.
Last year, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, asked the TEA and the state auditor for a joint audit of the charter operator. Canales flagged a number of concerns, such as the school’s $14 million travel budget, and $13 million in advertising and fundraising expenses over the previous two years, including television ads during the World Series and the Super Bowl.
Torkelson’s payout prompted Canales to file a bill that would dock charter schools state funding for CEO or superintendent severance payments that exceed one year of salary and benefits. Such a provision is already applied to traditional school districts. Lawmakers approved the legislation and sent the bill to the governor for his signature.
Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president and a longtime critic of charter operators, called for the Legislature to rein in the promotion and expansion of “charter school chains.”
“The costs for our public schools and our taxpayers are much too high, particularly when we discover executives in our state’s largest and most sophisticated charter chain padding their pockets with our money,” Capo said.
About a year ago, IDEA officials announced policy changes intended to strengthen the network’s governance and accountability. The board adopted policies that prohibited the use of school funds for private air travel and mandated monthly reports to the board’s finance and audit committees.
Lopez said the board is confident the policies have “been effective at preventing the types of improprieties that took place in earlier years.”
“Nevertheless, though outside reviewers have validated our confidence, we are taking additional steps, including the hiring of additional internal auditors, to ensure all of IDEA’s funds and resources are expended for the direct benefit of our students,” Lopez wrote.
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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.