Texas places state’s largest charter school network under conservatorship

Texas places state’s largest charter school network under conservatorship
4 months 1 week 6 hours ago Wednesday, March 06 2024 Mar 6, 2024 March 06, 2024 6:52 PM March 06, 2024 in News- Education
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
The San Juan Idea Public Schools on Nov. 23, 2010, in San Juan. Credit: Joel Martinez

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Texas’ largest charter school network has been placed under conservatorship by the Texas Education Agency after a years-long investigation into improper spending within the system of 143 schools.

The arrangement, announced Wednesday, is part of a settlement agreement between IDEA Public Schools and the TEA. IDEA had been under investigation since 2021 following numerous allegations of financial and operational misconduct.

It was revealed that IDEA officials used public dollars to purchase luxury driver services as well as $15 million to lease a private jet, just two weeks after promising TEA it would be “strictly enforcing” new fiscal responsibility policies put in place in response to ongoing investigations, as reported by San Antonio Express-News.

The revelations led the district to conduct an internal investigation, resulting in the firing of JoAnn Gama, former superintendent and co-founder of IDEA. Gama later filed a lawsuit against IDEA claiming wrongful termination. IDEA came to a $475,000 settlement with Gama in January. This followed co-founder and CEO Tom Torkelson’s departure in 2020; he was given a $900,000 severance package.

The charter school district serves about 80,000 students in K-12. The schools are independently run but publicly funded with state dollars, having received about $821 million in state funding in 2023-2024 school year.

Under conservatorship, the conservators will have the authority to oversee and direct any action of the district, facilitate a needs assessment, conduct onsite inspections and support the creation of a plan to address corrective action concerns. They will also report back to the agency regarding the district's progress in completing necessary corrective activities.

The conservators will not fully take over the governance of the district. But if the district doesn’t make the necessary corrective measures that the conservators outline for them, a takeover could be possible in the future.

In a statement, IDEA said that it’s “pleased to have reached a settlement agreement … to resolve compliance issues our organization self-reported to regulators after an internal investigation in 2021.”

The district also stated that it would be returning $28.7 million in grant and formula funding to the U.S. Department of Education, stating that “these funds were reserved in a prior fiscal year to ensure repayment has a negligible impact on IDEA’s students and staff.”

The news follows the TEA takeover of Houston Independent School District in June following years of poor academic performance at a single campus within the district, among other factors.

Marlin Independent School District recently began the process of resuming local governance after seven years of state oversight due to five consecutive years of failing accountability ratings.

Austin Independent School District is currently under conservatorship, after TEA moved to appoint conservators in March 2023 due to the district failing to serve students receiving special education.

Disclosure: IDEA Public Schools has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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