Texas’ largest charter school network, IDEA Public Schools, will pay co-founder and former CEO Tom Torkelson $900,000.

Torkelson spent the last two decades leading IDEA through ambitious expansion plans and retains the titles of founder and CEO emeritus, but took criticism for non-academic expenses, like a since-abandoned decision to lease and operate a private jet for several million dollars.

Torkelson resigned his post in mid-April to the surprise of many statewide education observers. The board appointed IDEA’s co-founder JoAnn Gama to succeed Torkelson as CEO at the same meeting where he resigned.

At the time of the resignation, IDEA officials did not release Torkelson’s separation agreement or his contract as CEO. IDEA gave the documents to the Rivard Report Friday night in response to an open records request. They revealed IDEA would pay Torkelson $900,000 as part of his transition agreement.

IDEA was responsible for paying the ex-CEO $400,000 within 10 business days of his exit agreement and another $500,000 within 10 business days of Dec. 31, 2020, the document said.

Board Chair Al Lopez wrote Friday to funders and leadership team members that the $900,000 equates to Torkelson’s salary and performance bonus in 2019.

Torkelson’s contract that runs from Aug. 1, 2018 to July 31, 2022 details a base salary of $275,000 and annual incentive pay as $200,000.

The $900,000 payout is also “in lieu of paying out the 2 1/4 years remaining on his employment contract” which runs through 2022, Lopez said.

Torkelson’s resignation agreement states that IDEA will not directly or indirectly “disparage or defame the goodwill or reputation of Torkelson by any means.” Torkelson is bound by the same terms toward IDEA.

Another section of the agreement states both Torkelson and IDEA agreed to not publicize the agreement. However, it was still subject to the Texas Public Information Act, although the agreement states “IDEA shall exert reasonable lawful efforts to protect the Agreement as determined by IDEA.”

The most recent tax documents available indicate Torkelson was paid $554,060 for the fiscal year ending in June 2018, well above the highest-paid superintendent, Mark Henry from Cy-Fair ISD, who made $406,484 in the same school year. Cy-Fair ISD is the third-largest school district in Texas, and enrollment was more than 116,000. IDEA’s enrollment that same year was close to 36,000.

Torkelson’s successor will not seek a raise in her new role as CEO, Lopez said in his written update.

“That’s one more reason we admire JoAnn, and we respect her choice,” Lopez said.

The same 2017-18 tax documents show Gama’s salary was $375,951 although more updated TEA reports indicate Gama’s salary was $275,000 in the most recent academic year for her work as superintendent.

In his Friday message, Lopez describes new IDEA policies meant to strengthen governance and accountability, areas of criticism during Torkelon’s time leading the charter network.

In late 2019, Torkelson’s leadership and IDEA Public Schools came under fire after the charter network made plans to spend millions leasing and operating a private jet. IDEA later backtracked on the plan, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle.

Other decisions also received scrutiny, including IDEA’s annual $400,000 expense on tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center and some board members’ business dealings with IDEA.

Torkelson wrote to IDEA staff to address the decisions, explaining why they were made while characterizing them as “really dumb and unhelpful.” In the letter, he explained that both the plans for the jet and the box seats would not continue.

IDEA’s new policies now prohibit access to private air travel, business, and first-class seating on commercial flights. The network also “clarified guidelines regarding what constitutes appropriate IDEA development and networking activities, including reasonable costs and specifying that official IDEA functions should take place at IDEA properties whenever feasible,” Lopez wrote.

Other policies include new monetary thresholds that require CFO and board approval, the reframing of executive benefits, and a requirement that the CFO submit a monthly report to the board’s finance committee and audit committee.

Nygren Consulting advised IDEA on nonprofit and corporate governance to help develop these policies. The firm also advised IDEA on changes to board composition and governing practices, leading IDEA to add five more board members and eliminate the title of executive chair, which Torkelson previously held.

“With the benefit of hindsight, the board and IDEA’s management team wish some things had been done differently,” Lopez wrote. “We have embraced recent criticism and feedback as an opportunity to show how high-performing public charter school systems can respond and evolve quickly to do what is required of them.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.