Charter school company spends big on luxury travel

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Last October, the CEO and president of the largest charter school company in Texas took a trip to Houston. They didn’t travel the way most public-school employees would have. Instead, they traveled by private jet, their spouses and five children came along for the trip, and they got around Houston not by Uber or rent car, but in a chauffeured SUV.

That trip was just one item in an $800,000 bill that IDEA Public Schools racked up between 2017 and 2019 on private jets and other luxe travel spending. Although IDEA received $319 million from the State of Texas and $71 million in federal money in 2018, this kind of travel would be illegal for public school district and state employees in Texas. Traditional public-school supporters and charter school advocates alike say it’s the kind of spending that gives a black eye to the charter school concept.

Charter schools receive no property tax revenue, as traditional public schools do, but are funded through state and federal grants. Like other public schools, they can also raise money from private donors. IDEA says it uses some of that private money for its luxury travel.

Records show that company CEO Tom Torkelson, his wife and three children, along with IDEA President JoAnn Gama, her husband and two children, stepped off a private jet at Sugar Land Regional Airport and jumped into the chauffeured SUV. The reason for the trip, records show, was to “visit Houston school sites.”

The flight cost is not noted in the records, nor is the reason for the spouses and children coming along on the trip. The vehicle, rented from Casablanca Limousines in Houston, cost $1,800.

At about the time of the Houston trip, IDEA was preparing to lease a private jet – the same plane that the district had used on an individual trip basis since at least 2014. But board members nixed the lease after the deal became public. 

In December 2019, IDEA announced the plane lease had been put aside.

In March, Torkelson proclaimed that “IDEA will not pay for private air travel” any longer.

Four days later, IDEA released the district’s transportation records to Peyton Wolcott, a Texas-based education advocate who had submitted a request for the documents in January.

She questioned the timing and the sincerity of Torkelson’s vow to end the subsidized travel.

“Why shouldn’t IDEA’s board and executives, who enjoyed Texas taxpayers’ largesse, dig deep into their pockets and pay it back? “she said. Records show IDEA has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private-plane travel in the past five years.

Flights by Torkelson and IDEA staffers inside Texas between 2017 and 2019 cost, on average, about $1,300 per one-way trip, with a discount for round-trip fares. For example, a private, round-trip flight taken by Torkelson in fall 2018 from McAllen to San Antonio ran $2,340. A commercial flight on United Airlines today would cost $377 for the same route. Bills for private flights can also include lodging and meals for pilots as well as other costs. See a sample invoice here.

Torkelson took a private jet to Tampa in November to meet with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discuss “education philanthropy,” records show. He was the only passenger on the jet, which holds nine people.

“We have no reason to believe that this person used federal funds to pay for private airline travel,” Angela Morabito, an education department spokeswoman, said in an email.The use of federal education funds for private airline travel would not be permitted, because it would not be ‘reasonable and necessary’ ” as required by law.

A federal audit released in November found IDEA did not always spend its grant funds correctly. The auditors suggested IDEA should repay $13,000 for unspecified misuses. It also found that some grant money had also been spent without documentation.

A month after meeting DeVos, Torkelson again flew alone on a same-sized jet to a meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, where he is a board member.

Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokeswoman said board members “are volunteers and make their own travel arrangements to attend board meetings.”

Torkelson and administrators flew on private jets an average of once a week since 2017 for events that ranged from ribbon-cuttings and fund raising to business meetings and depositions.

IDEA officials used rental cars but, as in Houston, they also used car services rather than Uber or other ground transportation. On one 2017 trip led by Gama, the IDEA president, ground transportation cost $1,685 for two cars.

The Texas Monitor reported in September that, in addition to the comfortable private travel, IDEA policy allowed staffers to enjoy first-class commercial air travel.  An IDEA spokeswoman said in an email earlier this month that first-class commercial air is no longer allowed.

Leaders at traditional public schools are prohibited from flying first-class on the public dime. The state comptroller’s office publicly posts spending guidelines on travel for school employees.

“This kind of spending is not okay,” said Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Charter Schools Association. “Regardless of how it was paid for, private funds or not, [it] raises the specter of bad fiscal management. It’s not okay to even flirt with the idea of misusing public money. This is not how charter schools behave, and you hate for someone’s bad decisions to become a narrative about a whole community.”

Donors to IDEA over the years have included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided $2 million in July to help IDEA expand into Florida and $250,000 in 2012 for “general operating support.” The Charter School Growth Fund in 2013 gave IDEA an “implementation grant” of $2.5 million  and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation donated $2.2 million from 2012 to 2014 for IDEA’s expansion and a learning center for teachers.

In 2016, IDEA formed IPS Enterprises, a separate nonprofit company, to spend outside money.

“At various times both IDEA Public Schools and IPS Enterprises have paid for private air travel, but all private air travel was paid for with nonpublic money,” IDEA spokeswoman Vanessa Barry said in an email.

When the private plane lease was announced, IDEA said the money for it would come from IPS.

IPS Enterprises is headquartered at the same address as IDEA.

IDEA prevailed in a 2018 lawsuit against the Texas Attorney General’s Office to keep IPS records confidential. The state had previously ruled that the records were public. The Advance News Journal in Pharr had asked for records related to the formation of IPS Enterprises.

All invoices obtained for this report were billed to IDEA Public Schools, including a November 2019 transfer of $15,000 to BB&T Bank, which was handling the deal for the airplane lease.

“The $15,000 did not come from public funds,” IDEA spokeswoman Barry said in an email. She said that vendors “did not always know the difference” between IDEA and IPS, “and would occasionally (in error) address invoices to IDEA Public Schools that should have been directed to IPS Enterprises. However, these were always accounted for properly by IDEA and IPS. IDEA uses public funding only for allowable expenses, and we augment our public funding with private donations.”

The records also show that IDEA had placed $50,000 in earnest money in November on the private jet that it intended to lease for $6.9 million. IDEA also signed an airplane hangar lease for $45,000 a month at Mid-Valley Airport in Weslaco to begin Dec. 1.

An item on the December IDEA board agenda gave the names of the companies providing and financing the goods  – BB&T Bank and Kapal Investments – with no mention of what the agenda item entailed. 

The lease was canceled on Dec. 17.

Torkelson had previously called the jet lease a “prudent business decision” and claimed opponents were simply a “distraction.”

IDEA officials had said that traveling from Weslaco, where IDEA is based, to campuses in El Paso or Baton Rouge, can take a full day.

But there are several flights on American or United from Harlingen’s Valley International Airport to El Paso that can have someone in place by 10 a.m. or earlier in either city with prices starting around $250.

Torkelson declined an interview request.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. It’s just another reminder how Charters get free passes, and are able to get around obstacles public schools have to deal with. In my public HS in southwest houston we get our KIPP/YES discipline/poor grade rejects right around now (before the STAAR test). It’s not fair. They can counsel out kids that will hurt their coveted “great data” and send them along to the local public school to deal with.

  2. So what? It just shows how much more efficient charters are compared to traditional districts that the charter management firms can afford such. We pay them to deliver education and just like a road builder, if the road gets built what they do with the money is their business.

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