Charter schools fly below the radar on spending and transparency rules

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It’s a treat to fly at the front of the plane, where seats are bigger and fares are roughly double the cost of a coach seat. But for the state’s most prolific charter school operator, first-class air travel is allowed. In addition, the company will pay for the travel of employee spouses, family members and “companions” of executives as well.

That’s just one of many illustrations of the different rules that apply to charter schools in Texas compared to public schools, where funding for even the most basic needs always seems in short supply.

IDEA Public Schools, based in Weslaco, has allowed the first-class travel perk for six years. That includes footing the bill for the commute of chief financial officer Wyatt Truscheit, who moved from Mission, Texas, to the Los Angeles area in 2013 and comes to Texas every other week, according to tax records. IDEA also pays for Truscheit’s housing while he works in South Texas.

IDEA received $319 million in state funding and $71 million in federal money in 2018 to operate its 61 campuses around the state. With its schools in Louisiana, IDEA runs 96 locations in all.

As a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, IDEA is also allowed to make loans to employees and board members and to do business with relatives of employees.

In 2015, IDEA bought property from board member and developer Mike Rhodes for $1.7 million. Board member David Earl also received money for serving as counsel for Rhodes in the land deal.

Under a 2001 Texas attorney general ruling, privately operated nonprofit charter school corporations are not subject to laws prohibiting such dealing sby public officials. And although a law passed that same year says charter school companies are subject to the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws, the details of those requirements are not clear.

IDEA is the fastest-growing tuition-free charter network in the state, widely lauded in the charter school community for its results, boasting that 100 percent of its graduates are college-bound and that student test scores that are routinely above the state average. 

The nonprofit announced earlier this year that it will receive $11.9 million in federal grants to expand its holdings in Texas and other states.

It is in the process of opening 12 additional schools in the Midland-Odessa area and predicts that by 2022, it will have 100,000 students enrolled in schools in Texas and the Southeast. 

IDEA officials declined an interview request and did not respond to emailed questions.

The dealings and perks of IDEA are a thorn to critics of charters, who feel the playing field is unequal when it comes to how the state treats charters and how those charters can carry out business. Still, conflict of interest forms get filed, as Rhodes and Earl did in 2015. 

If a public school district were found to be paying for first-class seats and spouses’ tickets, “It would be a scandal,” said Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. 

Such spending on luxury, he said “is a slap in the face to teachers,” who routinely spend hundreds of dollars of their own money every year for supplies for their classrooms and students.

Public school administrators are generally prohibited from flying first-class on the public dime. The state comptroller’s office posts spending guidelines for traveling school employees. 

State employees may only fly first class “if it is the only available airfare,” according to state law.

In public school districts, most employees are paid by the district, not the state, and spending policies are set by local school boards. The exception is when “the board or school employees are traveling using grant or other funds with specific restrictions,” Joy Baskin, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards, said in an email. “Typical board policy calls for expenses to be reasonable, necessary, and documented.”  

Violations, though, can be and sometimes are discovered through routine public records requests.  Charter schools, by comparison, have another layer of protection from public probing: They are in part exempt from state transparency laws. 

For example, the IDEA board’s finance committee in June discussed the possibility of leasing a private jet, according to a board agenda. 

IDEA declined to provide a video of the meeting to The Texas Monitor. It also failed to post the agenda for the meeting on its website, although it had posted agendas for other meetings leading up to the June session.

State law requires school districts with over 10,000 students to videotape their public meetings and post the recordings on their websites no later than seven days after the meeting. 

The Texas Monitor has filed a public records request for the video of the meeting.

The AG’s ruling on charters and potential nepotism has never been challenged in court, Christine Nishimura, former counsel for the Texas Charter School Association, told The Texas Monitor last year.

Elizabeth Cross, staff attorney for the charter association, did not respond to a call asking about the responsibility of charter schools to adhere to Texas’ open-government laws. 

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, this year authored a bill that would have required charters to adhere to the same open-meetings laws as public schools by requiring them to hold their board meetings in the same location as the area served by the school. Both the Texas Charter Schools Association and IDEA registered as opposing the bill. The measure failed.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. The entire purpose of Charter Schools was freedom from regulation. They either meet standards and attract students (no mandatory enrollment for them) or they go out of business. That is the idea and this move to more and more saddle them with all the monopoly districts have is a move to destroy the innovation and efficiency we’ve seen in many successful charter schools.

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