Texas Takes Control of State’s Biggest Charter School Network

Authorities from the Texas Education Agency have taken control of the state’s largest charter school network, IDEA Public Schools, due to financial irregularities uncovered after a thorough investigation of the network consisting of 143 schools.

This move, disclosed on Wednesday, comes as part of an agreement settling the probe initiated by the TEA in 2021 in response to allegations of financial mismanagement plaguing IDEA Public Schools for an extended period.

An investigation revealed that IDEA officials misused public funds for high-end chauffeur services and leased a private jet for $15 million, despite earlier commitments to adhere to stricter fiscal oversight standards following ongoing scrutiny. San Antonio Express-News reported these findings.

Subsequently, in response to the revelations, the district initiated an internal inquiry leading to the termination of JoAnn Gama, the former superintendent and co-founder of IDEA. Gama proceeded to file a lawsuit against IDEA for alleged wrongful termination, resulting in a $475,000 settlement in January. Meanwhile, the departure of co-founder and CEO Tom Torkelson in 2020 saw him receive a $900,000 severance package.

The charter school network caters to approximately 80,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, operating independently but funded through state allocations totaling around $821 million for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Under the supervision of conservators, an appointed authority will oversee and direct actions within the district, conduct on-site assessments, provide support to address corrective actions, and report progress back to the TEA. While not taking full control of governance, a potential future takeover remains if required corrections are not implemented.

In its response, IDEA expressed satisfaction with the resolution of compliance issues self-reported to regulators after a 2021 internal review.

Moreover, IDEA confirmed the reimbursement of $28.7 million in grant and formula funding to the U.S. Department of Education, noting minimal impact on students and staff due to prior fiscal planning.

These developments occur following the TEA’s intervention in the Houston Independent School District in June and Marlin Independent School District’s recent resumption of local governance after state oversight lasting seven years.

Similarly, the Austin Independent School District avoided conservatorship last year through a collaborative plan with TEA to address reports of inadequate special education services.

Note: The Texas Tribune has received financial support from IDEA Public Schools, however, financial backers do not influence Tribune’s editorial activities. For a detailed list of sponsors, refer here.

This content was originally published in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/06/idea-schools-conservatorship-texas/.

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