Texas Charter School Execs Approved $15 Million to Lease Private Jet While Under Investigation

Aug. 18, 2022

Aug. 17—New details published by the Houston Chronicle's Edward McKinley show board members of Texas' largest private charter school system voted to spend millions of dollars on leasing a private jet for business travel despite an ongoing state investigation into the organization for alleged misuse of public funds.

Documents submitted in a June lawsuit filed by IDEA Public Schools, a San Antonio-based company overseeing a network of 143 publicly funded private charter schools, state the company was actively under investigation by the Texas Education Agency when trustees green-lit a $15 million expenditure for the purpose of leasing a private, eight-passenger jet for company use.

IDEA founder and then-CEO Tom Torkelson dismissed backlash that arose when details of the jet lease were published in a 2019 Houston Chronicle article. Torkelson framed the board's decision at the time as a financially expedient investment while simultaneously announcing IDEA's decision to drop the plan.

"Opponents of education reform have falsely attacked a prudent management decision, creating a distraction from our core work. Though at no time public funds would have been used for the aircraft, IDEA has decided not to move forward with the lease," Torkelson said.

IDEA has received $3 billion in state and federal funding since its founding in 2000 for the implementation and maintenance of its charter network, which includes primary and secondary-level schools across Texas and Louisiana. Since 2015, IDEA has seen multiple executive-level staffers resign or exit the company following allegations of improper or reckless use of taxpayer dollars.

One of the most high-profile examples of the company's alleged mishandling of funds was its purchase of a hotel in Cameron County in 2019 which caught the attention of education reporters and school advocacy groups across the state. The $1 million deal sparked a series of Texas Freedom of Information Act (TFIA) requests from whistleblowers petitioning IDEA leaders to release internal documents pertaining to the acquisition, as well as records detailing compensation packages of company execs.

IDEA's board has resisted such efforts, and its June lawsuit filed against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called for his office to make exceptions that would allow the company to delay the release of any internal financial documents indefinitely. The lawsuit argues that the requested materials are currently under review in multiple investigations at the state and federal level, and that the public dissemination of such materials would taint or compromise investigators' ongoing efforts. The lawsuit also argues that IDEA's own internal investigation of itself qualifies company documents for such protections.

Torkel, the company's founder, resigned from his role as CEO in April of 2020. IDEA Public Schools is now headed by CEO JoAnn Gama and is currently facing a federal audit by the U.S. Department of Education as well as a state-level investigation undertaken by TEA.

A recent statement given to McKinley by IDEA spokeswoman Candice Burns claims the company is moving forward with a mind for transparency and is investigating possible acts of malfeasance committed by earlier leadership no longer with the company.

"Every dollar entrusted to IDEA Public Schools should support the success of our students," Burns told McKinley. "As IDEA's board of directors discovered and shared publicly more than a year ago following an investigation they commissioned, unfortunately there was a period in IDEA's history when a small group of senior executives did not uphold our commitment to direct every resource toward IDEA's educational mission."


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