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Concerns rise at Oklahoma Capitol over effort to claw back teacher bonuses

State Capitol
State Capitol

An attempt by the Oklahoma State Department of Education to claw back teacher bonuses has raised new questions in the state Legislature over the agency’s handling of taxpayer funds.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said teachers shouldn’t be forced to pay back the bonuses if the state had mistakenly paid them. The Senate Education Committee leader told reporters on Tuesday it would be unfair and could diminish trust in other teacher incentive programs.

Pugh said the situation “will raise additional questions” as lawmakers consider the state Education Department’s budget, including the agency’s request to expand teacher bonus initiatives.

“I think it is fair for my colleagues to now have a little bit of suspicion when we’re getting asked, sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to implement new programs,” Pugh said.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said some teachers were untruthful when they applied for the bonus program, which he created last year.

He then blamed the news media for reporting “prematurely” on the program while his agency is still verifying applicants’ eligibility, according to a letter he sent to the state Legislature on Monday.

More than 500 teachers were approved for bonuses of $15,000 to $50,000, and they started receiving their payments in the fall. This month, the agency identified certain teachers that it said didn’t meet the program’s criteria and demanded they return the funds.

Walters’ letter also acknowledges other teachers had been underpaid, though he didn’t say how many.

“These teachers will be receiving additional bonus funds commensurate with their qualifications,” he wrote.

The program offered high-dollar signing bonuses to attract new teachers to the state or encourage them to return to the classroom after having left for other professions. Teachers who worked in a public school the year before were not eligible for the program.

Recipients pledged to work five years in an Oklahoma public school district.

One teacher, Kay Bojorquez, said her application was approved and was awarded $50,000 in October. She took home about $30,000 after taxes.

Then, she received a letter on Jan. 13 demanding she repay the full $50,000 because the state agency had discovered she was never eligible.

Bojorquez, an Osage County special education teacher with Epic Charter Schools, filed a lawsuit on Monday against the state Department of Education, contending an agency error shouldn’t force her to return the funds. Her lawsuit states it would be financially impossible for her to pay it back in full.

She also sued Walters for defamation over his claim that she had lied on her application.

Her attorney, Mark Hammons, said Bojorquez was “candid and honest in all the information she supplied,” including her work history.

“As far as she knew, she met the qualifications they set out. They approved that and then applied a clawback,” Hammons said. “That is unreasonable and defamatory to claim that she was dishonest.”

Eight other teachers also received demands for repayment after the state agency overpaid at least $290,000 in signing bonuses, according to reporting by Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact Oklahoma.

Pugh and other state lawmakers have said the Education Department should bear the cost of its own mistake.

“A teacher got a $50,000 bonus,” Pugh said. “After taxes, they took home $29,000, and now the heavy hand of government is going to ask them to pay back $50,000. That’s a great deal for government. But what a shame for us to run an agency that way, or what a shame for us to run a state that way.”

The agency paid the bonuses with special education funds from the federal government.

Walters called the program “the most successful teacher recruitment initiative in state history” because it attracted more than 500 teachers.

He suggested the Legislature spend $10 million in state funds on a similar teacher recruitment program and $22 million in bonuses for educators whose students show growth in reading and math.

However, the structure of such a program and the agency’s verification process have come under scrutiny from lawmakers. The head of the House education funding committee, Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said he encouraged the agency to implement better controls before distributing money.

Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, urged the Education Department to reconsider its internal process and “find a better solution for the teachers that received the bonus in error.”

“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,” Baker said in a statement Friday. “It was up to the State Department of Education to provide proper oversight in the vetting and approval of the bonus recipients.”

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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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