Concerns Heighten at Oklahoma Capitol Regarding Effort to Revoke Teacher Bonuses

Lawmakers in Oklahoma are questioning the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s decision to recover teacher bonuses, raising concerns over the agency’s management of taxpayer funds. Sen. Adam Pugh expressed his belief that teachers should not be required to pay back the bonuses if the state had mistakenly provided them, as it would be unfair and could undermine trust in other teacher incentive programs. Pugh also highlighted the need for additional scrutiny when considering the Education Department’s budget and its request to expand teacher bonus initiatives.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters stated that some teachers were untruthful when applying for the bonus program. In a letter to the state Legislature, Walters attributed premature reporting by the news media to the situation, noting that the agency is still verifying applicants’ eligibility. Over 500 teachers received bonuses ranging from $15,000 to $50,000, but the agency later identified certain teachers who did not meet the program’s criteria and demanded the return of the funds.

In his letter, Walters acknowledged that some teachers had also been underpaid without specifying the number affected. He stated that these teachers would receive additional bonus funds corresponding to their qualifications. The program aimed to attract new teachers or encourage those who had left the profession to return to Oklahoma classrooms. Teachers who had worked in a public school the previous year were not eligible, and recipients were required to commit to five years in an Oklahoma public school district.

One teacher, Kay Bojorquez, received approval for a $50,000 bonus but later received a demand for repayment since she was determined to be ineligible. Bojorquez filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education, arguing that an agency error should not force her to repay the funds. Additionally, she sued Superintendent Walters for defamation concerning his claim that she had lied on her application. Several other teachers also received repayment demands due to the agency’s overpayment of at least $290,000 in signing bonuses.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Pugh, have advocated for the Education Department to bear the cost of its mistake, highlighting the burden it places on teachers who have already received their bonuses. The agency used special education funds from the federal government to pay the bonuses. Superintendent Walters touted the program’s success in recruiting over 500 teachers and proposed allocating $10 million in state funds for a similar recruitment program and $22 million in bonuses for educators whose students exhibit growth in reading and math.

However, legislators have raised concerns about the program’s structure and the agency’s verification process. Rep. Mark McBride, head of the House education funding committee, urged the implementation of better controls before distributing funds. Rep. Rhonda Baker called on the Education Department to reconsider its internal process and find a better solution for teachers who received the bonus in error, emphasizing the responsibility of the State Department of Education to properly vet and approve bonus recipients.

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