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The Fall of the IDEA Charter Execs: No Luxury Jet Can Save Us Now.

May 25, 2021

The May 25, 2021 Houston Chronicle reports of the firing of IDEA Public Schools charter chain CEO JoAnn Gama and CFO Irma Muñoz “after a forensic review found ‘substantial evidence’ that top leaders at the state’s largest charter network misused money and staff for personal gain ‘in a manner to avoid detection by the standard external audit and internal control processes that the Board had in place at the time,'” according to IDEA board president Al Lopez in the letter to IDEA parents, posted below.

The Chronicle continues:

The firings followed an anonymous tip received after the departures last year of two other high-ranking IDEA leaders, former CEO Tom Torkelson and former CFO Wyatt Truscheit. Lopez’s letter says the allegations of misconduct involve “a small number of IDEA senior leaders,” though it does not name any individuals alleged to have engaged in improper spending or use of staff.

IDEA’s finances came under fire in late 2019, following the board’s quickly-reversed decision to lease a private jet and the disclosure that the charter network spent money on luxury suites at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, among other decisions. Torkelson resigned in May 2020, agreeing to a $900,000 settlement payout with the charter’s board.

And just that fast, both Gama and Muñoz were scrubbed from the IDEA leadership page.

I wanted some background on Gama and Muñoz, which I found on this archived IDEA leadership page from February 17, 2021.

Here’s Muñoz’s archived bio sketch:

Irma Muñoz was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. She graduated from the University of California at Davis, and from Harvard University’s School of Government.

Prior to joining IDEA, Irma worked as Sr. Director of New Markets and Spokesperson for GMAC Financial, a subsidiary of General Motors. In this capacity she was responsible for all marketing initiatives within the domestic Latino, African American and Asian communities.

Before joining GMAC Financial, Irma worked for Fannie Mae assisting the organization’s Sr. Leadership Team on a variety of efforts, including process re-engineering, research and development and business strategy implementation. She also worked with the World Bank on projects regarding the development of a securitization platform, housing finance and policy in a variety of countries throughout Latin America. Her work led to the issuance of these countries’ first mortgage back securities and ultimately the establishment of a secondary mortgage market.

Irma joined IDEA Public Schools in December of 2008 as Vice President of Strategy and Growth.  In 2009 she was promoted to IDEA’s senior leadership team and now serves as Chief Operating Officer. In this capacity she oversees the Department of Marketing & Communications, Student Recruitment, Information Technology, Data Management, Transportation, Child Nutrition, Facilities Maintenance and School Operations.

And “co-founder, CEO, and superintendent” Gama’s archived bio, with a touch of Torkelson:

JoAnn Gonzales Gama was born and raised in the north side of Houston, near IDEA Hardy. After graduating from Sam Houston High School in 1993, JoAnn attended Boston University on a full scholarship.

In 1997, she joined Teach For America, a national corps of high-achieving leaders who commit two years to teach in public schools in low-income communities. Upon moving to the Rio Grande Valley, JoAnn enrolled at the University of Texas-Pan American and earned her master’s degree in Educational Leadership.

JoAnn taught 4th and 5th grade English as a Second Language in Donna, Texas. After one successful year of teaching, JoAnn was nominated by her peers as the campus Teacher of the Year.

n 1998, JoAnn co-founded IDEA Academy within Donna Independent School District with fellow Teach For America corps member, Tom Torkelson. After one year as a “school within a school,” JoAnn and Tom applied for a state charter in order to open their own charter school. In August 2000, they opened the IDEA Academy with 150 students in grades 4-8.

As co-founder and Superintendent, JoAnn has helped lead the replication efforts of the original school. Currently, IDEA Public Schools educates nearly 66,000 students in 120 schools across eight regions—the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Southern Louisiana, Tarrant County, Permian Basin and Greater Houston. 

The mission of IDEA Public Schools is to prepare students from underserved communities for success in college and citizenship. 

In 2009, U.S. News and World Report ranked IDEA College Preparatory Donna as the 13th best high school and second best charter high school in the nation. That same year, IDEA Public Schools was the first-ever charter organization to be named the best school system in the state of Texas (H-E-B Excellence in Education Award). Today, The Washington Post’s latest rankings of America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranked all seven of IDEA’s eligible College Preparatory high schools in the top 200 high schools nationwide and in the top 50 in Texas.

In 2017, IDEA Donna, IDEA Quest and IDEA Frontier were ranked in the top 1% of all public high schools in the United States and the top 40 best public charter schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

JoAnn received the prestigious Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership in 2009 and was appointed to President Barack Obama’s White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics in 2010. In 2018, JoAnn was inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame. She was also honored by Teach For America with their Alumni Leadership Award. In 2020, JoAnn was appointed to be IDEA’s Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as the network’s CEO and Superintendent.  

But full Torkelson is so much better. Here’s Torkelson’s archived bio, technically dated July 2020, but he was already gone, having resigned following that whole luxury-jet-Spurs-season-tickets-luxury-box- etc. public revelation in December 2019:

Upon graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in economics in 1997, Tom joined Teach For America and taught fourth grade in Donna, Texas for three years, after which he successfully launched the IDEA Academy in 2000, serving as the first board president and founding principal.

At 24 years of age, Tom was then Texas’ youngest-ever charter school founder. Since 2000, Tom has led the replication efforts of the original school. System-wide there are now more than 53,000 students enrolled in the 96 schools that comprise IDEA Public Schools.

The mission of IDEA Public Schools is to prepare students from underserved communities for success in college and citizenship.

By 2009, the U.S. News and World Report ranked IDEA Donna College Preparatory as the 13th best high school and second best charter high school in the nation. Also in 2009, IDEA Public Schools was the first-ever charter organization to be named the best school system in the state of Texas and received the H-E-B Excellence in Education Award. Today, The Washington Post’s latest rankings of America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranked all seven of IDEA’s eligible College Preparatory high schools in the top 200 high schools nationwide and in the top 50 in Texas.

Tom has been widely recognized in a variety of publications, including being featured in 2009 by Time magazine as Wendy Kopp’s pick for the 100 most influential global citizens. Tom is the recipient of the prestigious Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership (2009), University of Michigan Ross Business School’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year (2010), the Freddy Fender Humanitarian Award (2008), and served as Chairman of the 2007 National Charter Schools Conference. In 2018, Tom was inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame. Tom is often called upon to provide expert testimony to state and local officials on issues of education policy and school choice.

An avid runner and frequent Ironman triathlon competitor, Tom and his wife, Dr. Nina Lee Torkelson, live in the Rio Grande Valley with their three children, Lincoln, Liam, and Gwendolyn. 

In April of 2020, after 20 years, Tom resigned from IDEA Public Schools to embark on the next chapter of his career.

I dig the airbrushed, final sentence. Torkelson did jump nonprofits, moving on to promote charter schools in San Antonio. However, given that four IDEA leaders (including both cofounders) are connected to “‘substantial evidence’ that top leaders at the state’s largest charter network misused money and staff for personal gain,” having Torkelson on one’s charter-school-promoting team might not be the best marketing strategy at present.

*Two Teach for America (TFA) charter school cofounders allegedly rip off taxpayers with extravagant spending and are now no longer connected to the chain they founded as a result.*

Also not good TFA-promo fodder.

Here’s former CFO Wyatt Truschiet’s archived bio just before his 2020 exit. The last paragraph makes for an interesting post-disgraced read in 2021:

Wyatt earned a B.A. in Government from Valparaiso University, a B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in accounting (cum laude) from the University of Missouri, and a M.B.A. from Baylor University.

Wyatt began his financial career with the national public accounting firm Deloitte & Touché in St. Louis, MO., and has served in various senior level financial positions over the past 30 years specializing in entrepreneurial, multi-location, accelerated growth organizations, notably as Vice President Finance with Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Dallas, TX, and as Chief Financial Officer in the private equity sector for the past 8 years prior to joining IDEA.

As Chief Financial Officer for IDEA Public Schools, Wyatt Truscheit is responsible for all aspects of IDEA’s financial operations, including capital markets, banking and treasury, financial and management accounting, financial reporting, budgeting, payroll, benefits administration, procurement, risk management, human resources administration, and financial regulatory compliance.  Wyatt also chairs the Budget & Finance Committee of the IDEA Board of Directors.

Truscheit: “Responsible for all aspects.” Like luxury jets and Spurs tickets?

At this point, the public has no IDEA just how much taxpayer money has been squandered by “a small number” of its leaders.

More to come, it seems.

______________________________________________________________

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