EducationTexas’ Biggest Charter School Network Fires Leaders for Embezzlement

The CEO's short career began when the company's longtime leader departed in 2020 with a reputation of some financial irresponsibility.
May 26, 2021
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The largest charter school network in Texas, IDEA Public Schools, parted ways with top brass this week over financial malfeasance.

Former CEO JoAnn Gama and COO Irma Munoz no longer work for the network after a company investigation uncovered their “misuse of IDEA resources.” According to a statement by new acting CEO Al Lopez, Gama and Munoz embezzled the network.

“In summary, the review uncovered substantial evidence that in the years prior to 2020’s reforms, a small number of IDEA senior leaders directed the use of IDEA financial and staff resources for their personal benefit on multiple occasions,” the statement reads.

“Furthermore, their actions appeared to be done in a manner to avoid detection by the standard external audit and internal control processes that the Board had in place at the time.”

The board has opened up discussions with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to appoint a state overseer.

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The TEA wrote in its own statement that it will dig deeper into the affair, not ruling out the possibility of setting a conservator over the network.

“TEA was recently made aware that IDEA Public Schools has completed an internal forensic review. The Agency has opened an investigation into this matter,” the agency stated.

“We will pursue all corrective measures available under law to protect the taxpayers of Texas.”

Gama, who founded the network with former CEO Tom Torkelson in Donna 21 years ago, took the helm after Torkelson resigned in the wake of financial plans he called “dumb and unhelpful.” Most infamously, Torkelson had planned to lease a private jet for the network.

“Some of IDEA’s biggest fans have been telling me lately that a number of decisions I’ve made as CEO were really dumb and unhelpful. It’s been hard to hear, but they’re right,” Torkelson wrote in a public apology.

“You may have seen news stories about IDEA leasing an airplane. That was my idea. I was trying to solve a problem that no other school district in the country has: how to be present in schools that are thousands of miles away from each other and growing fast. While convenient and efficient, it was a foolish solution, because it didn’t square with the life and needs at the very schools I was traveling to.”

The jet was not the only black eye on Torkelson’s reign. A U.S. Department of Education audit found that IDEA Public Schools did not provide accurate information on its performance reports from 2016 to 2018.

After Torkelson left in April 2020, the board appointed Gama with high praise for her resume.

“As chair of IDEA’s Board of Directors, I am writing after our meeting this evening to share the news that Tom Torkelson has resigned to embark on the next chapter of his career and that the Board has appointed JoAnn Gama, our current President & Superintendent, to be IDEA’s new Chief Executive Officer,” Lopez wrote.

“With a personal story that affirms IDEA’s mission of providing opportunity through education, JoAnn has received the prestigious Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership and was appointed to President Barack Obama’s White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics… We are excited that JoAnn is chief executive at this important moment, and we are grateful for everything Tom contributed to build IDEA into the remarkable organization it is.”

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.