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Leader of charter school network vows to end questionable spending

Jan. 31, 2020
IDEA Public Schools, with nearly 50 schools and 51,000 students in Texas, has been criticized for spending $400,000 on basketball tickets and seeking to spend millions on a private jet lease.

Several weeks after a charter school network nixed plans to spend millions of dollars on a charter jet lease, it has announced the end of additional “hard to defend” spending practices, including buying tickets and a luxury box for events at San Antonio’s AT&T Center.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA Public Schools, in a letter sent to the network’s 7,000-plus employees, apologized for spending patterns that have brought unflattering attention to the Texas’s largest charter school organization.

The network’s since-reversed decision to enter into an eight-year aircraft lease and its spending on San Antonio Spurs basketball games have drawn criticism from the Texas AFT, an umbrella organization for teachers unions in the state.

“Some of IDEA’s biggest fans have been telling me lately that a number of decisions I’ve made as CEO were really dumb and unhelpful,” Torkelson wrote in his letter. “It’s been hard to hear, but they’re right.”

IDEA officials say they will not renew an agreement with Spurs Sports and Entertainment for the tickets and luxury box once the basketball team’s season ends in the spring.

More than 1,000 employees have received tickets each season, with the “lion’s share” going to campus-level staff and students. The accommodations cost about $400,000 this year, paid for with private funds, IDEA officials say.

In addition, IDEA no longer will allow business deals between the network and high-level leaders and their relatives — which have occurred on at least eight occasions in the past four years.

Most notably, IDEA’s recommended uniform vendor in the Rio Grande Valley since 2012 has been RGV Pro Direct, a company partially owned by IDEA Chief Operations Officer Irma Muñoz’s husband. Muñoz said earlier this month that her husband sold his 50 percent stake in the company at the end of 2019.

Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for the Texas AFT, says some of IDEA’s spending practices illustrate the need for additional state oversight. Unlike traditional  school districts, charter schools are governed by private nonprofits.

“It’s really puzzling that there are no questions from state leadership as to why this is OK,” Quinzi says. “With (traditional) public schools, at least there’s elected governance that has to be in the same city.”

Torkelson and other IDEA leaders have previously defended their spending practices, calling them part of the charter’s more business-like ethos. The CEO argued the jet would increase staff efficiency as IDEA rapidly expands across Texas, Louisiana and Florida. The eight-passenger jet lease was projected to cost nearly $2 million per year, to be paid out of private donations.

The basketball tickets and luxury suite served as rewards for staff and students, officials assert.

“It was a morale and motivational event for us,” says IDEA Judson College Prep Principal Joaquin Hernandez, who took 21 teachers and three office staff members to a Spurs game in 2018.

Still, Torkelson says the connection between some spending choices and student success “hasn’t always been strong enough."

“In IDEA’s aim to be entrepreneurial and different from traditional education systems, sometimes I’ve pushed us to a place that’s hard to defend," he wrote. "I’m sorry I put IDEA and our friends in that position.”

IDEA enrolls about 51,000 Texas students at nearly 50 schools, most of which are  in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and Austin. The network plans to open its first four schools in Houston in August 2020, and aims to enroll 100,000 students nationwide by 2022-23.

About 93 percent of IDEA’s revenue came from local, state and federal sources in 2018-19. IDEA also owns a private company that receives donations used to support the network.

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