IDEA Public Schools

The hallways and teachers’ lounges at IDEA Public Schools have been buzzing with talk of the leaking of dozens of emails from the district account of CEO and Founder Tom Torkelson over the weekend.

IDEA officials confirmed they were investigating who forwarded 44 sensitive emails Saturday morning to local business and education leaders, charter executives from across the state and the charter district’s entire staff.

“Somebody hacked into … private conversations between me and my senior management team that were intended for nobody except for them,” Torkelson said Tuesday. This was “clearly somebody unhappy who wants to personally embarrass me or make our work that we’re doing to reform education in the (Rio Grande) Valley more challenging.”

Most of the emails concerned the distribution of performance-based pay bonuses for teachers, principals and central administrators.

But several exposed — often quite bluntly – the potential, or lack thereof, for teachers to advance into leadership roles, criticism of an administrator from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo schools, IDEA’s preference for Teach for America recruits and hiring formulas and future expansion into San Antonio or Austin...

A frequent volunteer at a Donna campus, [Esmeralda Oliva, a 33-year-old Weslaco mother with six children in IDEA] she has seen many of her favorite teachers let go, replaced with young and inexperienced Teach for America — or TFA — recruits.

That AmeriCorps-like program places recent college graduates into schools across the nation, and in multiple emails, Torkelson and his senior staff committed their organization to shifting IDEA’s hiring strategy in the direction of TFA.

“It’s a pay cut in a sense. They’re getting rid of higher-paid teachers and replacing them,” Oliva said. “These are great teachers, and it’s bothersome they’re getting sent away.

“I’ve seen how these teachers interact with each other, their bosses, students,” she said. “I don’t understand why they’re hiring new teachers.”

Torkelson flatly denied IDEA fired any teacher on salary grounds and said his district would retain a highly paid, 20-year veteran if he or she produced the expected student success results...

However, a TFA alumni himself, he also wrote in emails that IDEA would increase its hiring of TFA members to sustain its regional corps in the face of deep state budget cuts to TFA and other districts who hire the group’s recruits...

In the meantime, Torkelson and [IDEA’s Chief People and Systems Officer Irma Muñoz] said they would enhance email security within IDEA, perhaps adding routine password rotation to avoid future leaks.

And the district will decide what civil recourse, if any, to pursue, while they attempt to find the suspect.

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