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Ryan Walters announces signing bonuses for rural Oklahoma teachers, despite past controversy

State Superintendent Ryan Walters at a February Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters at a February Board of Education meeting.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education announced it will offer another round of signing bonuses to attract teachers to rural schools. Meanwhile, the agency is reportedly negotiating a settlement agreement with two teachers it paid previous bonuses to in error.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said on Monday his agency will offer signing bonuses of $15,000 to $25,000 to secondary math and science teachers who agree to work in a public school in rural Oklahoma for the next school year.

A similar signing bonus program from the agency lured more than 500 certified educators back to Oklahoma schools last year, but it stirred significant controversy and attracted scrutiny from lawmakers when a few teachers were later told to return the money they had been paid.

“I am thrilled to continue bringing in highly qualified teachers to Oklahoma classrooms,” Walters said in a statement. “Oklahoma is a great place to live and work, and we are making it easier than ever for teachers to come to our great state and have an enormous impact on our young people.”

Eligible teachers cannot have taught in an Oklahoma public school in the 2023-24 school year. They must have a teaching certification for secondary math or science and be hired to teach in a rural school for the 2024-25 year.

The agency provided a list of 384 schools that fit the definition of a rural locale, according to criteria from the National Center for Education Statistics. One school on the list no longer exists, Sovereign Community School.

The Education Department called the program the “most successful teacher recruitment effort in state history.”

The agency awarded bonuses last year to a handful of teachers who didn’t meet the criteria and, months later, demanded they repay. Walters informed the state Legislature his agency also had mistakenly underpaid other recipients.

Two of the teachers who were told to repay their bonuses, Kay Bojorquez and Kristina Stadelman, sued the department and Walters in Oklahoma County District Court, alleging breach of contract and defamation.

Their attorney, Mark Hammons, said they have reached a tentative settlement with the Education Department and intend to finalize it this week.

Both teachers were approved for the program and received bonuses of $50,000 in October and November. In January, they received letters from the agency, informing them they never actually qualified and owed the full $50,000 back.

More than $20,000 of each bonus was withheld for taxes, and Bojorquez, of Osage County, and Stadelman, of Oklahoma County, had spent the rest of the money before the Education Department demanded they return it, according to their lawsuit.

Walters said the errant bonuses were the result of the teachers putting “misinformation” in their applications. That statement was defamatory, Bojorquez and Stadelman said. The teachers asked a judge to order Walters to pay them at least $75,000 each for defamation.

The Education Department and Walters have since countersued the teachers, asking for the full bonuses to be returned plus the cost of attorney fees. The agency said Bojorquez and Stadelman, by applying for and accepting the bonuses, represented that they hadn’t taught in an Oklahoma public school the previous year when, in fact, they had.

The two teachers said they truthfully reported their work history. They contend the situation was caused by the agency’s “own alleged negligence or malfeasance in giving such approval.”

“It would be financially impossible for the plaintiff to repay the signing bonus,” their lawsuit states.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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