With four young children and a fifth on the way, Kristina Stadelman was ecstatic after qualifying for a $50,000 bonus for taking a hard-to-fill job as a special education teacher in Oklahoma. She used the money to finish home improvements and buy a new car for her growing family.
Then a letter arrived from the Oklahoma State Department of Education: It told her she received the money in error and must repay it, quickly.
“I don't obviously have the money to pay it back by the end of February,” Stadelman said. “I came home the day I found out and just cried for two days straight."The errant payments, first reported by Oklahoma Watch, and the repayment demands have Oklahoma's education agency drawing fierce criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom say teachers shouldn't be forced to give the money back. Average teacher pay in Oklahoma is about $54,800, which ranks 38th in the country, according to the National Education Association.
The bonuses were awarded under an Oklahoma program that is intended to help recruit new teachers for the most difficult jobs to fill, including early elementary and special education. In the wake of the mishap, Oklahoma legislators are looking to overhaul the program to prevent paying the bonuses in a lump sum and implement a more rigorous screening process.
A department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on how many bonuses were paid in error or how it intends to claw them back. Oklahoma Watch reported that at least nine teachers were asked to return bonuses ranging from $15,000 to $50,000. A total of $185,000 went to teachers who didn't qualify for the program at all, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lesser amount, the outlet reported.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who implemented the program, suggested in a memo sent Monday to legislative leaders that some of the errant bonuses were because teachers had “misrepresented their experience and qualifications.” He blamed the media for much of the fallout.
“The press has jumped the gun on their reporting, excluding vital details on the contracts and our auditing system,” Walters wrote in the memo, obtained by The Associated Press. “The fact of the matter is that over 500 teachers were recruited to Oklahoma classrooms through this program.”
Still, lawmakers from both parties have leveled fierce criticism at Walters and the agency.
“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," said state Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican and chair of the House Common Education Committee. “It was up to the State Department of Education to provide proper oversight in the vetting and approval of the bonus recipients.”
Stadelman told the AP that her bonus came to about $29,000 after taxes. She said her blood pressure spiked after she got the letter, which said she was ineligible because she had previously been employed as a full-time special education teacher in another district last year, even though she said she indicated that on her application.
It's not the first time that Walters, a conservative Republican who leads the department and who has embraced culture-war issues like book banning and targeting transgender students, has come under fire for alleged misspending of public funds.
A state audit of a federal COVID funds for the Governor's Emergency Education Relief fund, or GEER, during the time when Walters served as the governor's education secretary found more than $1.7 million was spent on non-educational items such as kitchen appliances, power tools, furniture and entertainment.
Walters also faced criticism after the news outlet The Frontier reported this month that he expensed more than $4,000 on travel for out-of-state speaking engagements, media appearances and a horror movie premiere, despite the governor's executive order banning public spending for most travel outside of Oklahoma.
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