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IDEA Public Schools Part Ways With Top Execs After Review Of Charter’s Finances

 In this 2019 file photo, students sit inside a classroom of the IDEA Carver Academy in San Antonio.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
In this 2019 file photo, students sit inside a classroom of the IDEA Carver Academy in San Antonio.

IDEA Public Schools, the largest charter school network in Texas, parted ways with its CEO and COO after an investigation into alleged misuse of funds, according to a letter sent to the school community Tuesday.

The letter, from Board President Al Lopez, announced the departure of CEO JoAnn Gama and COO Irma Muñoz after an anonymous tip led the IDEA Board of Directors to conduct an in-depth legal and forensic review. That review, performed by a special counsel, found years of financial transactions with misused funds, according to the letter.

It is unclear whether the two were fired, or if the two were implicated in the misuse of funds.

The anonymous tip was received last year shortly after the resignation of former CEO Tom Torkelson last April, and of former CFO Wyatt Truscheit in July. Questions were raised in late 2019 on how IDEA was spending money, after an attempt to use network funds for luxury suites and private jets.

Those funding decisions were later reversed, and the network instituted finance and governance reforms to "ensure fiscal responsibility and strengthen oversight," according to the letter.

IDEA did not provide additional comment outside the letter, due to the ongoing investigation.

Lopez said the financial review instituted as part of the policy reforms uncovered evidence that "a small number of IDEA senior leaders directed the use of IDEA financial and staff resources for their personal benefit on multiple occasions."

The IDEA Board of Directors is cooperating with an outside special counsel and the forensic review, providing access to all of IDEA's documents, Lopez said in the letter. The board is also hiring internal auditors to ensure funds and resources are only used to benefit students going forward.

In a statement, the Texas Education Agency confirmed that it was also investigating the alleged misuse of funds. Lopez has since invited TEA to appoint a monitor or conservator over the charter school board, and has turned over the audit to law enforcement for review of evidence found.

"TEA was recently made aware that IDEA Public Schools has completed an internal forensic review," the agency wrote in its statement. "We will pursue all corrective measures available under law to protect the taxpayers of Texas."

After the findings from the previous CEO and CFO departures, TEA approved just 12 out of the 27 IDEA requests to add campuses in the upcoming school year — as they too were questioning the financial and governance records, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The board has since named Lopez acting CEO and vice chair, with Collin Sewell as acting COO.

"Collin and I are fully committed to carrying out the ongoing management of IDEA," Lopez wrote. "Together with other Board members, Collin and I have been speaking with IDEA's regional executive directors and other leaders, and we are confident in both their commitment and ability to continue to fulfill IDEA's mission and provide exceptional educational opportunities to all of our students."

IDEA was founded as an after-school program in 1998 by Gama and Torkelson in Donna, Texas. It was later granted a charter in 2000. The system now has more than 66,000 students across eight regions, in two states, with more than 16,000 students in the San Antonio area.

According to its website, IDEA boasts national rankings and is the fastest-growing charter school network in the U.S. with higher college enrollments than those in the public school system.

Lopez wrote that he hopes to maintain some sense of normalcy for students throughout the process.

"Throughout this transition, the Board, Collin and I will be relying on the strength and expertise of our extended community and supporters as we begin a new chapter in the future of IDEA Public Schools," Lopez wrote.

Houston Public Media helped produce this story.

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Copyright 2021 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.
Sofia Gonzalez | Houston Public Media
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