The two co-founders of IDEA Public Schools, born in the Rio Grande Valley in 1998 as an after-school program that grew into the state’s single largest charter school system, now have something more in common after all these years: Both left their jobs as CEO under fire by the board of directors.
Co-founder Tom Torkelson, seen as the driving force behind IDEA’s rapid expansion in the state and beyond in recent years, left his CEO position in April 2020 after disclosures that he intended to lease a private jet at a cost of several million dollars, and after $400,000 in funds was spent on premium seats to San Antonio Spurs games at the AT&T Center.
Now, a little more than one year later, JoAnn Gama, IDEA’s co-founder who succeeded Torkelson as CEO, is out.
Details surrounding the board’s decision last week to oust Gama and Chief Operating Officer Irma Muñoz were not disclosed, although a statement by board President Al Lopez revealed that a whistleblower complaint led to a board-ordered audit that uncovered financial irregularities.
Lopez is now listed on the IDEA website as acting superintendent as well as board chair.
Such developments in one of Bexar County’s public school districts would have led to elected board trustees disclosing the cause of termination and any severance or contract buyouts. Charter schools, governed by unelected boards but subject to the same state disclosure laws, operate with far less transparency. If Torkelson’s forced departure in 2020 serves as precedent, the San Antonio Report and other local media will have to file open records requests with the Texas attorney general’s office to win the release of the audit and any severance payments.
Open records requests revealed in the months after his departure that Torkelson was paid $900,000 as part of a separation agreement approved by the board, believed to be the largest such payout ever to a San Antonio public school leader.
Public funding at IDEA Public schools, which has 14 local campuses, and other leading charter networks in San Antonio is amply complemented by millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from conservative donors who support an alternative to the state’s 1,029 public school districts. Charter growth over the last decade has been centered in San Antonio and the state’s other major cities where inner city districts have historically struggled with poverty and low education outcomes.
Last year’s departure of Torkelson, a dynamic educator with an ambitious vision for an expansive, multistate charter school network, stunned the San Antonio education community. He now serves as CEO of Choose to Succeed, the nonprofit umbrella organization that supports a number of charter school systems in San Antonio.
The Choose to Succeed website suggests charters adhere to the same accountability standards as public school districts: “Who are charter schools accountable to? In addition to being held accountable for the same academic standards as traditional public schools, charter schools are uniquely responsible in that they are directly accountable to the public. Students and their families are the most important stakeholders in ensuring a charter’s success.”
Lopez’s email sent to staff on Tuesday fails to meet that standard, citing “substantial evidence” that had been uncovered in the audit and forwarded to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which announced its own investigation into the matter. Both the TEA and IDEA’s board have withheld details of what financial irregularities led to the forced departures.
Gama and Muñoz have not spoken publicly since they were ousted.
Education Reporter Brooke Crum’s article that first reported the dismissals at IDEA Public Schools suggested serious financial misconduct is at the heart of the dismissals.
Lopez, Crum reported, 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.”
“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,” Lopez wrote in the email.
That reads like a smokescreen to me, one intentionally created to obscure the reasons behind the ousters, and whether school funds are being used to give the two executives severance payments. Taxpayers, and certainly the families who send their children to IDEA schools, deserve transparency.
IDEA’s supporters are rightly proud of the school’s academic accomplishments and the campuses that have received state recognition for their performance in some of the state’s most socioeconomically challenged communities. That record, however, does not justify a cover-up of financial misconduct.
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, Florida, and a 15th San Antonio location, according to its website. Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, and Ohio are slated to open in 2022.
How a second wave of failed leadership will affect IDEA’s operations and expansions, if at all, remains to be seen. For now, the school board owes the public some answers.
This column has been updated to correct the name of IDEA Public Schools’ board president.