Oklahoma education officials are attempting to claw back at least $290,000 in bonuses they mistakenly paid out to several teachers.
After awarding them bonuses of between $15,000 and $50,000 each last fall, the Oklahoma State Department of Education earlier this month demanded at least nine unintended recipients to return the funds by the end of next month, watchdog organization Oklahoma Watch reported last Thursday, citing interviews it conducted with affected employees. A total of $185,000 went to teachers who didn’t qualify for the program at all, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lesser amount, the outlet reported.
The errant payments were awarded to educators who applied for the bonuses last fall through a statewide program designed to recruit teachers for hard-to-fill roles in Oklahoma schools through pay-based incentives, according to the outlet. Oklahoma’s education department made the payments in error because its staff did not sufficiently vet the information provided in the applications, the watchdog reported.
I got an email … it was like the second week of January, saying I have to pay it back by the end of February,” special education teacher Kristina Stadelman told Oklahoma Watch, adding she used the money for several home improvement projects and a down payment on a car for her growing family. “I’m like, how am I supposed to do that?”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who implemented the program, suggested in a memo sent Monday to legislative leaders that some of the errant bonuses were because teachers had “misrepresented their experience and qualifications.” He blamed the media for much of the fallout.
“The press has jumped the gun on their reporting, excluding vital details on the contracts and our auditing system,” Walters wrote in the memo, obtained by The Associated Press. “The fact of the matter is that over 500 teachers were recruited to Oklahoma classrooms through this program.”
The repayment demands have Oklahoma’s education agency drawing fierce criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom say the teachers shouldn’t be forced to give the money back. Average teacher pay in Oklahoma is about $54,800, which ranks 38th in the country, according to the National Education Association.
A department spokesman did not respond to the Associated Press’ request for comment on how many bonuses were paid in error or how it intends to claw them back.