Tom Torkelson, the founder of IDEA Public Schools, has a new job in San Antonio weeks after IDEA’s board bought out his CEO contract for $900,000.

On July 1, Torkelson became the new CEO of Choose to Succeed, a local nonprofit founded in 2012 with the goal of attracting charter schools to San Antonio. Choose to Succeed backs a portfolio of charter operators they deem high-performing including IDEA, KIPP Texas, Great Hearts Academies, and BASIS Schools.

“I want to help the public charter school sector get as big as it possibly can with the goal of making sure that every single child in San Antonio has access to a very, very high quality, high performing school,” Torkelson said.

In his new role, Torkelson wants to grow philanthropic contributions to support charter schools and bring the top performing charter schools around the country to San Antonio.

The former IDEA CEO replaces Chip Haass, who will transition into a role focused on governance and public affairs for the nonprofit.

“Tom’s experience in growing a charter school will be most valuable as [Choose to Succeed] works to make public schools in Bexar County the best in our nation,” Board Chair Steve Lewis said. “Tom has vast experience in scaling a high-performing public school system. We hope he can share some of his experiences with growing public charter schools in our area.”

Two decades ago, Torkelson co-founded IDEA with JoAnn Gama, who succeeded him as CEO. Together, the two pursued aggressive expansion plans that have opened campuses throughout Texas with plans to add campuses in other states. IDEA expanded to San Antonio in 2012 when it merged with Carver Academy. Today, IDEA is the largest charter network in Texas, enrolling close to 50,000 students.

Torkelson’s resignation in mid-April was a surprise to many statewide education observers because of his longstanding history with the network and his role in its ambitious expansion plans. His $900,000 payout from IDEA’s board also raised eyebrows.

In late 2019, Torkelson’s leadership and IDEA Public Schools came under fire after the charter network made plans to spend millions leasing and operating a private jet. IDEA later backtracked on the plan, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle.

Other decisions also received scrutiny, including IDEA’s annual $400,000 expense on tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center and some board members’ business dealings with IDEA. For example, the company IDEA recommended for uniforms was partially owned by an IDEA executive’s husband.

Torkelson wrote to IDEA staff to address the decisions, explaining why they were made while characterizing them as “really dumb and unhelpful.” In the letter, he explained that both the plans for the jet and the box seats would not continue.

Following Torkelson’s resignation, IDEA Board Chair Al Lopez wrote to funders and leadership team members outlining a number of new policies meant to strengthen governance and accountability.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.