WESLACO — IDEA Public Schools plans to expand in Texas beyond the Rio Grande Valley in the next two years with the help of a new $41.4 million construction bond, said IDEA founder and CEO Tom Torkelson.
Charter schools face significant hurdles just to get financing for proposed construction projects, and Torkelson will be lobbying the state Legislature during the next few months to change that process.
But he said the new bond should push IDEA past its "2012 Plan" to launch 22 schools in the Valley and allow the charter to revise its master plan to operate 38 schools by 2015.
"Not all of those 38 schools are going to be just in the Rio Grande Valley," he said. "By 2013, we anticipate that schools in different regions in the state of Texas will be coming online."
Torkelson would not cite specific areas for expansion, but he did not rule out San Antonio or Houston, cities with large low-income populations.
The new construction bond — the third and largest in the charter’s 11-year history — will allow IDEA to build two new campuses in Edinburg and Weslaco, both of which should open next year and push the "2012 Plan" to 24 schools instead of 22.
The Alamo and Pharr campuses will also get more classrooms, and a brand new College Preparatory location in San Juan will help accommodate that campus’s growth, said Chief Financial Officer Wyatt Truscheit.
"Paying close attention to costs … lets us do a lot with less," Truscheit said. "We actually build classrooms, so we can put more kids in the schools. We get more kids off that 13,000 waiting list.
"There are no extra projects," he added.
Unlike charters, public school districts have the power to increase local tax rates in order to cover multimillion-dollar fine arts auditoriums, football stadiums, changing rooms and more.
This upsets Torkelson, considering several reports place the U.S. academically below other countries.
"We’re getting killed internationally, but where we’re not getting killed is facilities," Torkelson said. "We have the best K-12 facilities of any country, but that’s not preparing our students for careers that the future’s going to have.
"There’s a massive misallocation of student funds," he said.
COSTING TAXPAYERS MORE
That will be part of the main argument Torkelson and Truscheit will take to Austin soon, as they partner with other charters in the state to convince lawmakers to change education policy.
Certainly one of the friendliest states to charters, Texas still places great barriers in front of the alternative districts struggling to stay alive with very limited funds"We essentially live off federal and state dollars alone," Truscheit said. "We don’t have all the advantages (public) school districts have … so our credit rating and attracting lenders is our responsibility."
On top of setting local tax rates, traditional districts also have the benefit of the state’s permanent school fund — a $22 billion fund that guarantees Texas will not allow schools to default on their loans.
With Texas as an essential co-signer, public schools have a relatively easier chance to secure very low interest rates on hundreds of millions of dollars in construction funds, Torkelson said.
"We basically cost taxpayers more to pay the higher interest rates we get because we don’t have access to the permanent school fund," he said. "It won’t cost the state a single penny to allow charters access to that."
IDEA’s new bond did come with an interest rate at about double what other Valley districts have for theirs.
Facing a massive budget shortfall, state lawmakers will look to cut costs anywhere they can. And Torkelson said he feels confident charters will convince them they can do that by changing the financing barrier.
"IDEA’s not going to stop growing either," Torkelson said. "As far as they eye can see, we’ll be opening up schools, providing a free, college prep, high-quality education to every student and parent that wants it."
Neal Morton covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4472