Torkelson addresses IDEA spending criticism

IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson announced last week additional measures designed to rein in spending on luxury purchases made by the organization that’s drawn the public’s ire in recent months.

The changes include a decision not to renew a deal with the San Antonio Spurs that included tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center to reward students and staff with games and concerts, a policy that bars IDEA from paying for private air travel and a rule that strengthens conflict-of-interest policies that apply to board members and senior staff.

The announcement follows IDEA’s decision in December to cancel plans to lease and operate a private jet. IDEA made that decision shortly after details of the arrangement became public.

Torkelson described the backlash over IDEA’s spending habits in a letter sent Jan. 30.

“ 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,” he wrote. “I’m reaching out to all IDEA staff and a large group of our supporters because I want you all to understand how seriously I take these criticisms and how committed I am to improve.”

Torkelson took personal responsibility for some of the high dollar decisions in the letter.

“ 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,” he wrote. “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.”

Additionally, Torkelson wrote that the district had not broken any rules with its spending practices, but added acknowledged that the spending was almost indefensible.

“ For each individual choice, there has been a business case — to save time, recognize good work, make an out-of-town assignment or constant travel more tolerable,” he wrote. “However, in IDEA’s aim to be entrepreneurial and different from traditional education systems, sometimes I’ve pushed us to a place that’s hard to defend. I’m sorry I put IDEA and our friends in that position.”

IDEA expected to have 52 schools in the Rio Grande Valley as of 2019.