The CEO and chief operating officer of the state’s largest charter school network no longer work for IDEA Public Schools after a forensic audit revealed evidence that senior executives had used financial and staff resources for personal benefit, the organization’s board president wrote in a staff email Tuesday.
IDEA is working with the “appropriate authorities” to review the “substantial evidence” uncovered through an independent financial review, board President Al Lopez wrote in the email to staff. The board also is in talks with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath about potentially appointing a monitor or conservator to oversee the charter school network’s operations.
“TEA was recently made aware that IDEA Public Schools has completed an internal forensic review,” the agency said in a statement. “The Agency has opened an investigation into this matter. We will pursue all corrective measures available under law to protect the taxpayers of Texas.”
Lopez did not divulge details of the evidence uncovered by the review but wrote that the “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.” He will temporarily replace CEO JoAnn Gama, while Vice Chair Collin Sewell will step in as acting chief operating officer to replace Irma Munoz.
“We will not be able to provide additional information regarding the review at this time due to the confidentiality of personnel matters and the involvement of the authorities,” he wrote in the email.
Representatives of IDEA Public Schools did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
A series of emails from an anonymous sender led the IDEA board to direct the charter’s lawyers to retain special counsel to conduct “an in-depth legal and forensic review of financial transactions and activities” of senior executives over the past several years, according to Lopez’s email. The anonymous tips came after the departure of then–CEO Tom Torkelson and Chief Financial Officer Wyatt Truschiet last year.
In late 2019, Torkelson’s leadership and IDEA came under fire after the charter network made plans to spend millions of dollars leasing and operating a private jet. IDEA later backtracked on the plan, the Houston Chronicle reported. Other decisions also received scrutiny, like IDEA’s annual $400,000 expense on tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center and some board members’ business dealings with IDEA.
Torkelson resigned in April 2020 and received $900,000 in his separation agreement with the charter network. The board then appointed Gama, who co-founded IDEA with Torkelson, to serve as CEO.
IDEA’s board implemented new policies at that time that prohibited access to private air travel and business and first-class seating on commercial flights. In January 2020, the board expanded those changes to require the chief financial officer’s approval of all transactions exceeding $10,000 and board approval of any transaction of more than $250,000. It also hired new legal counsel.
In 2000, Torkleson and Gama founded IDEA Public Schools in the Rio Grande Valley. The charter school network, which also serves southern Louisiana, enrolls about 66,000 students in 120 schools. IDEA plans to open eight new campuses next school year, including schools in Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio, according to its website.