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Oklahoma demands teacher bonuses back after overpaying

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Oklahoma Department of Education rolled out a new signing bonus program this school year to help address the state's ever-growing teacher shortage. But according to an investigation from nonprofit news site Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact Oklahoma's Beth Wallis, the program turned into a nightmare for several teachers when the department demanded the bonus money back.

BETH WALLIS, BYLINE: Kristina Stadelman sits at her dining room table, cradling her 3-day-old son.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

WALLIS: She says she's trying to focus on enjoying this moment with her baby instead of the demand letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education in front of her.

KRISTINA STADELMAN: I haven't had the time to really wrap my head around it and really focus on this because I didn't want to ruin this moment.

WALLIS: Stadelman teaches elementary special education in the Oklahoma City metro area. She applied to the state's new teacher signing bonus program, which used $16 million in funds leftover from federal pandemic relief plus funds allocated for students with disabilities. To be eligible, educators had to commit to teach elementary or special education for five years and couldn't have taught the year before in Oklahoma. She was awarded a $50,000 signing bonus - almost a whole-year salary.

STADELMAN: We were able to put a down payment on a van to be able to have more room and - have more room for the kids. And it's helping me be able to take my six weeks so I can spend the time with my newborn.

WALLIS: But in January, she got an email from the department that turned everything upside down.

STADELMAN: The money I received in November - they determined, unfortunately, that I did not meet the requirements and that I needed to pay the money back.

WALLIS: The department said Stadelman wasn't eligible because she taught at an Oklahoma public school last year. She says she misunderstood the requirements when she applied. But records show she did list her employment history on her application.

STADELMAN: If I was trying to falsify, I wouldn't have provided that information. They made the mistake, not me.

WALLIS: Stadelman isn't alone. StateImpact found nine teachers were overpaid by at least $290,000. The department confirmed those figures but, after the investigation aired, said only four teachers were affected. A department spokesperson said these errors shouldn't diminish the overall success of the program, which awarded bonuses to over 500 teachers.

But Kay Bojorquez wasn't thinking about clawbacks when her supervisor encouraged her to apply, mistakenly believing that she qualified. On her application, Bojorquez reported being employed at Epic Charter Schools last year.

KAY BOJORQUEZ: And as far as I understood, I met all the criteria. That's why my name got put in the hat in the first place.

WALLIS: In November, she got the maximum bonus of $50,000. She used it to pay off debts to qualify for better college loans for her son. On January 13, she received an email from the department telling her to return the full amount.

BOJORQUEZ: When I read the letter, I threw up. My financial situation is not going to be able to withstand this. This is going to ruin me. You came in and you interrupted my life with the promise of grandeur, and then you tell me that, oh, whoops. We messed up. Now your life is ruined.

WALLIS: Bojorquez and Stadelman are suing the department for breach of contract. After StateImpact's investigation aired, the state's top officials weighed in. Several state House Education Committee chairs called on the department to find a better solution than clawbacks. At a late January press conference, the state superintendent said there may be one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN WALTERS: There is a path forward that does not require a payback from those teachers. So they can agree to certain things with our agency - addendums to the contracts that say we agree to do this for a longer period of time.

WALLIS: In other words, teachers might have to work longer than the original contract's five years in order to avoid having to pay back their bonuses. But the specifics are still up in the air. The department spokesperson notes it only incorrectly awarded 2% of the total amount of bonuses. But teachers say that number represents real people. And after the department awarded them life-changing amounts of money, they're left to deal with the life-changing fallout.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Wallis in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "MONEY TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beth Wallis
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]