After leading Texas’ largest charter school network for 20 years, IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson resigned from his position, IDEA Board Chair Al Lopez announced Friday night.

Torkelson founded IDEA Public Schools with JoAnn Gama, who was appointed to succeed the outgoing CEO at a Friday night board meeting.

Together, the pair founded IDEA Academy in Donna and received state authorization in 2000 to expand their model as a charter network around the state. Today, IDEA is the largest charter network in the state, enrolling more than 50,000 students in Texas and Louisiana with aspirations to enroll 100,000 by 2022.

Lopez wrote to IDEA staff and families Friday that Torkelson “resigned to embark on the next chapter of his career.”

Torkelson told the Rivard Report Saturday morning that he had been thinking about resigning from his position for “some time” and that he and the board began discussing a possible leadership transition about a month ago.

“We’ve had kind of a rocky last couple of months and obviously [COVID-19], so we’ve been delaying it,” Torkelson said. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I want to make sure that IDEA is well-positioned for the next chapter and I think JoAnn’s leadership is exactly what we need right now.”

Gama previously served as IDEA’s president and superintendent where she managed all of IDEA’s regions, overseeing the charter network’s close to 100 campuses. She is a graduate of Boston University and served with Teach for America before co-founding IDEA with Torkelson.

On Saturday morning, Gama said she didn’t feel like a typical leadership transition would would be necessary because she has already spent so many years at IDEA and has a strong grasp of its direction and vision.

“We are excited that JoAnn is chief executive at this important moment, and we are grateful for everything Tom contributed to build IDEA into the remarkable organization it is,” Lopez wrote in his letter.

Torkelson said he plans to help Gama transition IDEA students through the coronavirus pandemic and continue IDEA’s expansion plans but did not offer a specific end date for his employment with IDEA.

“I’m going to stick around for as long as JoAnn and the board want me to continue helping out with things,” he said, noting that his title is now founder and CEO emeritus.

Torkelson said now was the right time to make this transition so he could focus entirely on helping IDEA get through coronavirus and free up Gama’s time to transition into the new role.

When asked about his contract, Torkelson said he did not remember the length or terms and said he didn’t have any further details to release at this point.

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, 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 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.

On Saturday morning, Torkelson said this criticism made him stay on a little longer than he otherwise would have as CEO so he could take responsibility for the decisions and guide IDEA beyond them.

Next fall, IDEA plans to open 24 additional schools. The following fall, the charter operator plans to open another 26.

“I’ll swing a hammer if I need to to make sure all the schools get open on time,” Torkelson said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.