Oklahoma teacher files lawsuit against state education department for $50K bonus repayment demand

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma teacher has filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education and the superintendent of public schools after the department demanded she and other teachers repay a bonus it said they received in error.

Kay Bojorquez, a special education teacher for Epic Charter Schools, was granted a $50,000 bonus in November by the department through Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ new Teacher Signing Bonus program, under the belief that she met the requirements. However, in January, Bojorquez and at least eight other teachers were sent letters requesting repayment of the bonus by the end of February.

The department stated that $185,000 was given to teachers who were not eligible for the program, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who were qualified for lower bonus amounts than they received, as reported by Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact. The program stipulated that teachers should not have taught in an Oklahoma school district during the previous academic year.

Bojorquez filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court on Monday, alleging that Walters defamed her by accusing her of lying on her application. The lawsuit seeks damages exceeding $75,000 from Walters, as well as a ruling that relieves her of the responsibility to repay the bonus.

This is one of several lawsuits Walters is facing from Oklahoma teachers, schools, and former department employees, in either federal or state court.

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Teacher claims she should not be held accountable for education department’s error

Furthermore, Bojorquez accuses the Oklahoma Department of Education of breaching its contract by attempting to reclaim the bonus payment “when the contract does not allow for such action based on the (department’s) own alleged mistake,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that the department’s effort to recover the money is done in “bad faith” and is a punishment to Bojorquez for the department’s alleged negligence or misconduct in awarding a bonus for which she did not qualify in the first place. Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact reported that the overpayments occurred because the department did not verify teachers’ information before releasing the funds.

Department spokesperson Dan Isett informed the nonprofit news organizations that these errors should not undermine the overall success of the program, which is currently being audited by the department. When asked why the department proceeded with bonus payments without validating teachers’ information, Isett explained that the verification process is still ongoing.

“Your questions have surfaced in the middle of our ongoing process of launching, administering, and ensuring accountability in this program,” Isett stated in an email. “Once we conclude this project, there will be a final report that presents all relevant data and results from the program, including the measures taken to protect taxpayers.”

Oklahoma teacher fears financial ruin if required to repay bonus

A supervisor encouraged Bojorquez to apply for the bonus program, and neither of them realized that she was ineligible due to her employment as a teacher in an Oklahoma school district the previous year. Bojorquez disclosed on her application that she worked as a teacher at Epic Charter Schools last year, as she informed Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact.

“As far as I understood, I met all the criteria,” she explained. “That’s why I was considered for the bonus in the first place. I believed I had to be a teacher last year.”

Upon receiving the maximum bonus of $50,000, Bojorquez made some minor home improvements and paid off debts after years of financial strain caused by caring for her parents and now having to cover her son’s college tuition. Having to reimburse the money, particularly within such a short time frame, would spell financial ruin for her, she said.

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State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters faces criticism from lawmakers

This is one of several lawsuits facing Walters from Oklahoma teachers, schools, and former department employees, filed in either federal or state court.

Last week, Walters defended his decision to “claw back” the bonuses. In a memo sent to state legislative leaders on Monday, Walters accused the media of presenting “incomplete,” “inaccurate,” and “premature” reporting on issues surrounding the program.

In addition, he suggested that the errors occurred because “several teachers misrepresented their experience and qualifications.”

However, legislators from both parties have heavily criticized Walters and the state education department. State Sen. Adam Pugh, along with Reps. Mark McBride, Mickey Dollens, and Rhonda Baker, issued statements last week opposing the notion of forcing teachers to repay the bonuses.

McBride, who serves as the Appropriations Sub-Committee Chair for Education in the Oklahoma House, previously referred to Walters’ decision as problematic and expressed concerns about the bonus program.

“Once you give something away, you give it away,” he previously told The Oklahoman, part of the USA TODAY Network.

On Tuesday, lawmakers continued to press the issue and called on Walters to “stop blaming everyone else” for the bonus error, urging him to prioritize other education matters in the state.

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