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Several Oklahoma teachers are being asked to pay back up to $50,000 in bonuses that were dolled out in a teacher recruitment initiative, according to a report.
At least nine teachers are being asked to return bonuses ranging between $15,000 and $50,000 that the state’s Department of Education paid out as recruitment bonuses, Oklahoma Watch reported.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters specified the “clawback” was a core component of the bonuses and the contractual terms that were agreed upon by the teachers and the state.
“The teacher signing bonus program is working as intended by utilizing the necessary safeguards and following the terms of the contract with regard to use of federal funding,” Walters said in a memo obtained by Fox News Digital to the Oklahoma State Legislature and its leadership. “From the beginning, the program was designed with a rigorous and ongoing audit process in mind. The verification process for eligibility is an ongoing process.”
Walters continued: “During the audit process, SDE discovered that several teachers misrepresented their experience and qualifications. SDE is working with these teachers and the federal government on options to ensure accountability of taxpayer money while keeping teachers in the classroom in some of the highest-need areas. We are exploring every option to ensure that teachers honor the intent of the contract they signed while ensuring accountability for taxpayers.”
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Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters speaks during a special state Board of Education meeting, April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
The state is requesting some teachers return their bonuses as its ongoing audit process found some did not qualify for the program and others were overpaid.
“Beyond requiring accurate representation of teachers’ eligibility, one of the stipulations of the contract is that teachers must remain in Oklahoma classrooms for five years, and so we will be conducting ongoing verification of that standard and will claw back funds for teachers that leave early,” the memo read.
Walters blamed media outlets for the backlash his office was receiving.
“The press has jumped the gun on their reporting, excluding vital details on the contracts and our auditing system,” Walters wrote in the memo. “The fact of the matter is that over 500 teachers were recruited to Oklahoma classrooms through this program.”
Some teachers, auditors insisted, did not qualify for the program and were overpaid. (iStock)
He also clarified the program “has been the most successful teacher recruitment initiative in state history.”
“I am extremely proud of the work my staff put into designing, launching, and implementing this program in such a quick turnaround,” Walters added.
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According to Oklahoma Watch, a total of $185,000 was paid out to teachers who did not qualify, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lesser amount.
Before the memo was sent, the repayment demands had Oklahoma’s education agency drawing fierce criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
“As a former teacher, I cannot imagine the anxiety something like this would induce – to be deemed eligible and to receive a large bonus in my bank account, only to be told months later I must return it,” state Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican and chair of the House Common Education Committee, told The Associated Press. “It was up to the State Department of Education to provide proper oversight in the vetting and approval of the bonus recipients.”
Oklahoma Rep. Rhonda Baker commented on the state requiring some teachers to pay back bonuses, saying: “As a former teacher, I cannot imagine the anxiety something like this would induce.” (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
One teacher with four young children and a fifth on the way told The Associated Press that she initially qualified for a $50,000 bonus and used the money to finish home improvements and buy a new car for her growing family.
Then she received a letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education requesting she repay the funds, quickly.
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“I don’t obviously have the money to pay it back by the end of February,” Kristina Stadelman said. “I came home the day I found out and just cried for two days straight.”
According to the National Education Association, the average teacher pay in Oklahoma is about $54,800, which ranks 38th in the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.