EDINBURG, Texas – State Rep. Terry Canales wants more transparency at Texas charter schools and says he will introduce legislation next session to demand it.
The Edinburg Democrat does not like the way IDEA Public Schools has been run over the past few years. Referencing Texas’ largest charter school network, Canales titled a recent post on Facebook, “Charter Schools Gone Wild.”
IDEA has come in for criticism for leasing and operating a private jet for several million dollars. However, this was not at taxpayer expense, IDEA said. The charter also spent $400,000 on tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Again, this was not at taxpayer expense, IDEA said.
Following the criticism, co-founder and CEO Tom Torkelson resigned. Under a transition package Torkelson will receive $900,000 from his former employers, The Rivard Report reported Saturday.
Canales is not pleased about this remuneration.
“This nonsense absolutely underscores the problem. In the last year, we have heard about private jets, hundreds of thousands on Spurs tickets, and now, million-dollar Wall Street executive severance packages for administrators,” Canales wrote.
“As a taxpayer and a parent of five children who attend public schools, I am saddened. This is a gross mismanagement of the public’s trust.”
Canales said he and his staff will “work on a framework of transparency” for charter schools. He said the legislation will “help bring to light how they operate once and for all.”
Canales said: “I will not rest until they (charter schools) are held to the same standards as our neighborhood schools. The reality is we have allowed these entities to unfairly prop themselves up, by cherry picking students and dismissing those that don’t bolster their numbers.”
He added: “These are by definition public schools, funded by public tax dollars, and yet they operate they are not subject to the same transparency as our regular school districts. To speak frankly, it’s nonsense, and I for one have had enough.”
In its report on Saturday, the San Antonio-based Rivard Report said IDEA Public Schools will pay Torkelson $900,000.
Previously, the online news organization broke the story of Torkelson’s resignation. At the time of the resignation, IDEA officials did not release Torkelson’s separation agreement or his contract as CEO. Through an open records request, The Rivard Report was able to obtain both. Click here to read the agreement.
The chairman of IDEA’s board of directors is Al Lopez. The Rivard Report said Lopez wrote to funders and leadership team members on Friday, pointing out that the $900,000 equates to Torkelson’s salary and performance bonus last year. Click here to read Lopez’s letter.
Both Torkelson and IDEA agreed to not publicize the transition package agreement. However, it is subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
JoAnn Gama co-founded IDEA with Torkelson in 2000. At the same board meeting where Torkelson resigned, Gama was named the new CEO. Lopez said Gama did not seek a raise in her new role. “That’s one more reason we admire JoAnn, and we respect her choice,” Lopez said.
Lopez said IDEA has introduced new policies designed to strengthen governance and accountability. He said the new policies prohibit access to private air travel, business, and first-class seating on commercial flights.
The Rivard Report quoted Lopez as saying IDEA clarified guidelines regarding what constitutes appropriate IDEA development and networking activities, including reasonable costs and specifying that official IDEA functions should take place at IDEA properties whenever feasible.
“With the benefit of hindsight, the board and IDEA’s management team wish some things had been done differently,” Lopez wrote. “We have embraced recent criticism and feedback as an opportunity to show how high-performing public charter school systems can respond and evolve quickly to do what is required of them.”
Torkelson: If you are explaining, you are losing
The Rio Grande Guardian obtained one of the last audio interviews with Torkelson before his resignation from IDEA. Around the same time it also interviewed state Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio, who was critical of IDEA’s use of funds for private jets and entertainment.
In his interview, Torkelson said no taxpayer money was used to hire a private jet or pay for a suite to watch San Antonio Spurs games. However, he said he accepted the criticism that was coming his way. “If you are explaining, you are losing,” he said.
The podcast contains the interviews with Torkelson and Menendez.