The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charter network leader apologizes for ‘really dumb and unhelpful’ financial decisions


The head of a Texas-based charter school chain publicly apologized for “really dumb and unhelpful” plans that included leasing a private jet for millions of dollars and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on San Antonio Spurs tickets.

It’s not the first time he has acknowledged errors in the chain’s operations.

Tom Torkelson, chief executive of IDEA Public Schools, issued a letter (see in full below) to the IDEA community saying he has sometimes “pushed us to a place that’s hard to defend” in his effort to be “entrepreneurial and different from traditional education systems.”

“I’m sorry I put IDEA and our friends in that position,” he said.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Supporters say they offer valuable alternatives to families that do not like their neighborhood schools. Critics say they drain resources from traditional public school districts that educate the vast majority of students and that they are part of a movement to privatize public education.

IDEA was started in Texas by two alumni from Teach for America and has nearly 100 campuses in that state and Louisiana serving nearly 53,000 students. According to its audit for 2018 and 2019, IDEA has more than $1.13 billion in assets. It has received more than $200 million from the federal Charter Schools Program over the past decade and has plans to expand rapidly in the next few years.

The chain markets itself as having a 100 percent college acceptance rate. It doesn’t mention that acceptance to a four-year college is a requirement for graduation, which would presumably be a disincentive to enroll for students who do not want to attend college.

Torkelson recently backed off a plan to lease a private jet for $2 million a year — for six years — after the Houston Chronicle and a state teachers union raised questions about it. Torkelson had said the lease would allow IDEA executives to fly to states where the network is expanding.

“You may have seen news stories about IDEA leasing an airplane,” he said in his letter. “That was my idea. I was trying to solve a problem that no other school district in the country has: how to be present in schools that are thousands of miles away from each other and growing fast. While convenient and efficient, it was a foolish solution, because it didn’t square with the life and needs at the very schools I was traveling to.”

IDEA will also end an agreement it has had with Spurs Sports & Entertainment for tickets and a luxury box at a cost of about $400,000 a year, paid for with private funds, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Two months before the Chronicle reported on the jet lease plan, the Texas Monitor revealed that five years earlier, IDEA had purchased property from board member and developer Mike Rhodes for $1.7 million, while another board member, David Earl, was a paid counsel for Rhodes in the deal. Such related party transactions would not be allowed in a public school. The 2019 audit states that “a related party earned a 3 percent commission on real estate purchases totaling $3,597,406″ and that nearly $637,000 in transactions took place with vendors affiliated with school employees.

In November, the Education Department’s inspector general published an audit of the information the IDEA network included in annual performance reviews submitted to the federal government from Oct. 1, 2014, through Sept. 30, 2018. The reviews were required as part of the grants received from the federal Charter Schools Program.

The inspector general concluded that IDEA Public Schools “did not provide complete and accurate information” for all performance measures on annual performance reports over three years and did not report any information for 84 percent of the performance measures on which it was required to report over two years. Still, IDEA had certified its annual performance reports were “true, complete and accurate.”

The inspector general’s audit also found that IDEA “did not always spend grant funds in accordance with federal cost principles and its approved grant applications.” It said:

Specifically, of the $1,002,406 worth of expenses that we examined, IDEA Public Schools charged $13,800 (1.4 percent) in unallowable expenses and did not adequately document $9,735 (1.0 percent) in expenses that it charged to the three grants from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018. Although IDEA Public Schools had written policies and procedures in place for approving purchases and documenting the use of grant funds, it did not have processes in place to provide reasonable assurance that employees consistently adhered to those policies and procedures.

IDEA acknowledged some of the findings, took issue with others and agreed with all the recommendations from the inspector general to improve internal procedures.

In 2017, IDEA gave Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews incorrect numbers of Advanced Placement tests at six of its schools for his annual ranking, then called “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.” That inaccurate data initially placed five IDEA schools in the top 10.

When Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a group that advocates for public schools, challenged Mathews’s ranking in this May 21, 2017, post on the Answer Sheet, Mathews recalculated, with IDEA schools dropping in the rankings. In a June 25, 2017, column acknowledging the problem, Torkelson was quoted as saying: “We messed up.”

Correction: IDEA currently operates schools currently only in Texas and Louisiana, not in other states as an earlier version said.

Here’s the letter Torkelson just issued, provided by IDEA:

Dear IDEA Team & Family,
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. It’s been hard to hear, but they’re right. I’m reaching out to all IDEA staff and a large group of our supporters because I want you all to understand how seriously I take these criticisms and how committed I am to improve.
Specifically, people around me have wondered how certain spending choices IDEA has made connect to our students’ success. Frankly, the connection hasn’t always been strong enough. You may have seen news stories about IDEA leasing an airplane. That was my idea. I was trying to solve a problem that no other school district in the country has: how to be present in schools that are thousands of miles away from each other and growing fast. While convenient and efficient, it was a foolish solution, because it didn’t square with the life and needs at the very schools I was traveling to.
Every dollar we have at IDEA—public and private—must serve our mission of helping students, always. I can say confidently we have complied with the rules that apply to nonprofits and school districts like ours. For each individual choice, there has been a business case—to save time, recognize good work, make an out-of-town assignment or constant travel more tolerable. However, 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. I’m sorry I put IDEA and our friends in that position.
To fix this and keep us focused on the work that unites us, here’s a summary of steps we’re taking at IDEA:
• IDEA will not pay for private air travel;
• We have identified and ended other practices that could achieve their objectives more modestly. For example, IDEA has a large marketing and advertising partnership with the San Antonio Spurs that includes tickets and a box at the AT&T Center for games and concerts. While we use the suite to reward IDEA students, families, staff, and school leaders, there are more economical ways to celebrate and reward them. We’re not renewing the partnership;
• We have strengthened our conflict-of-interest policies that apply to board members and senior staff. “Disclose and recuse” is not enough. We are barring any transaction that could reasonably be perceived as a legal conflict; and,
• IDEA’s board of directors is embracing a more muscular role in our operations and decision-making, led by our new board chair, Mr. Al Lopez. A former financial executive for Dell and IBM, Al has been the board’s treasurer and served as chair of our regional board in Austin. Al and the governing board will have the support of independent advisers to develop the board into a stronger oversight body that matches the size and scope of the organization we have become.
IDEA Public Schools has always had a culture of generosity and rewards. It’s central to our success and ever-growing impact. At all levels, we offer benefits and incentives for performance that I wish were more common in public school districts, colleges and universities, nonprofits, and corporations. We pay top dollar for the best classroom talent, management, and leadership. And we further reward those who achieve the sort of big goals that have put us on a path to reach 100,000 students by 2022, 100% college acceptance and matriculation, and high levels of student success. That’s not going to change.
As IDEA implements the changes I’ve talked about, there will continue to be scrutiny of our choices—some fair, some cynical. We can’t get thrown off course. That’s time and energy we’re not applying toward ensuring every IDEA student gets the high-quality education they deserve.
2020 is going to be a fantastic year for IDEA Public Schools. Right now, we’re building 24 new schools that will open this summer. We’re continuing to make plans for expansion to Florida and Ohio. In the Rio Grande Valley, where IDEA started, we’re going to celebrate our 20th anniversary and marvel at how a little afterschool program in Donna, Texas, has grown into a network of 96 schools, enrolling 52,000 students, sending every one of our graduates to college for 13 straight years, and employing more than 7,000 people as of today.
Thank you for hearing me out. And thank you for being part of IDEA’s story.
Best wishes,
P.S. Although the group receiving this message is enormous, I’m sure I missed other people who also care about IDEA Public Schools. Feel free to share with them.
Estimado Equipo y Familia de IDEA,
Algunos de los mayores colaboradores y simpatizantes de IDEA me han estado diciendo últimamente que una serie de decisiones que tomé como CEO fueron realmente tontas e inútiles. Ha sido difícil escuchar su opinión, pero tienen mucha razón. Estoy mandando este mensaje a un grupo tan grande de personal y simpatizantes de IDEA porque quiero que comprendan la seriedad con la que estoy tomando esas críticas y lo comprometido que estoy para mejorar.
Específicamente, las personas a mi alrededor se han preguntado cómo ciertas elecciones de gastos que IDEA ha hecho se conectan con el éxito de nuestros estudiantes. Francamente, la conexión no siempre ha sido lo suficientemente fuerte. Es posible que hayan visto o leído noticias donde se habla que IDEA arrienda un avión. Esa fue mi idea. Estaba tratando de resolver un problema que ningún otro distrito escolar del país tiene: cómo estar presente en escuelas que están a miles de kilómetros de distancia y que a la vez están creciendo rápidamente. Si bien era conveniente y eficiente, fue una solución tonta, porque no cuadraba con la vida y las necesidades de las mismas escuelas a las que viajaba.
Cada dólar que tenemos en IDEA (público y privado) debe cumplir nuestra misión de ayudar siempre a los estudiantes. Puedo decir con certeza que hemos cumplido con las reglas que se aplican a organizaciones sin fines de lucro y distritos escolares como el nuestro. Para cada elección, ha habido un caso de negocios: para ahorrar tiempo, reconocer el buen trabajo, para participar en una junta o asignación fuera de la ciudad o que el viajar sea más tolerable. Sin embargo, el objetivo de IDEA de ser emprendedor y diferente de los sistemas educativos tradicionales, a veces nos ha empujado a un lugar que es difícil de defender. Lamento haber puesto a IDEA y a nuestros amigos en esta posición.
Para solucionar esto y mantenernos enfocados en el trabajo que nos une, aquí hay un resumen de los pasos que estamos tomando en IDEA:
• IDEA no pagará viajes aéreos privados.
• Hemos identificado y cancelado otras prácticas que podrían lograr sus objetivos de manera más modesta. Por ejemplo, IDEA tiene una gran asociación de mercadotecnia y publicidad con el equipo de San Antonio Spurs que incluye entradas y un palco en el AT&T Center para juegos y conciertos. Si bien a menudo utilizamos las entradas y el palco para recompensar a los estudiantes, familias, personal y líderes escolares de IDEA, hay formas más económicas de celebrarlos y recompensarlos. No vamos a renovar el contrato;
• Hemos fortalecido nuestras políticas de conflicto de intereses que se aplican a los miembros de la junta directiva y los líderes de IDEA. "Revelar y declinar" no es suficiente. Estamos prohibiendo cualquier transacción que razonablemente pueda ser percibida como un conflicto legal; y,
• Nuestra junta directiva está asumiendo un papel más importante en las operaciones y la toma de decisiones de IDEA, dirigida por nuestro nuevo presidente de la junta directiva, el Sr. Al López, quien fue un ejecutivo financiero de Dell e IBM. Al ha sido tesorero de la junta y fue presidente de nuestra junta regional en Austin. Al y la junta directiva tendrán el apoyo de expertos independientes para ayudar a hacer crecer la junta directiva y fortalecer su supervisión para estar más en línea con el tamaño y el alcance de la organización en la que nos hemos convertido.
IDEA Public Schools siempre ha tenido una cultura de generosidad y recompensas. Es fundamental para nuestro éxito y nuestro impacto que es cada vez mayor. A todos los niveles, ofrecemos beneficios e incentivos por el excelente desempeño, que desearía que fueran más comunes en distritos escolares públicos, universidades, organizaciones sin fines de lucro y corporaciones. Pagamos la mejor compensación por el mejor talento ya sea en el aula, a nivel gerencial y a todos los líderes de IDEA. Y recompensamos aún más a aquellos que logran las metas que nos han puesto en el camino para lograr tener 100,000 estudiantes para 2022, 100% de aceptación universitaria y matriculación, y altos niveles de éxito estudiantil. Eso no va a cambiar.
A medida que IDEA implemente los cambios de los que he hablado, continuará el escrutinio de nuestras elecciones, algunas justas, otras cínicas. No podemos perder el rumbo. Ese es el tiempo y la energía que no estamos aplicando para garantizar que cada estudiante de IDEA obtenga la educación de alta calidad que se merece.
2020 va a ser un año fantástico para IDEA Public Schools. En este momento estamos construyendo 24 escuelas nuevas que abrirán sus puertas este verano. Continuamos haciendo planes para la expansión a Florida y Ohio. En el Valle del Río Grande, donde comenzó IDEA, vamos a celebrar nuestro vigésimo aniversario y aun seguimos maravillándonos de cómo un pequeño programa después de clases en Donna, Texas se ha convertido en una red de 96 escuelas, con 52,000 estudiantes, enviando a cada uno de nuestros graduados a la universidad por 13 años consecutivos y empleando a más de 7,000 personas.
Gracias por escucharme. Y gracias por ser parte de la historia de IDEA.
Mis mejores deseos,
PD. Aunque el grupo que recibe este mensaje es enorme, estoy seguro de que me pudieron faltar otras personas que también se preocupan por IDEA Public Schools. Siéntase libre de compartir este mensaje con ellos.

And here is the November inspector general’s audit: