- Some teachers in Oklahoma are being told to return tens of thousands in bonuses they got by mistake.
- At least nine of them received bonuses of up to $50,000 late last year, local media reported.
- Some say they face financial ruin because they’ve already spent the money on debt or house payments.
A bonus program for Oklahoma teachers erroneously gave educators large payouts and then told them to reimburse the state months later, even though some had already spent the money.
At least nine teachers received letters demanding they return bonuses of up to $50,000 each, nonprofit news organization Oklahoma Watch reported Thursday.
One of these teachers, Kay Bojorquez, told the outlet that she was informed by the state education department in November that she’d qualified for a $50,000 payout.
Bojorquez, who is funding her son’s college tuition, said she spent the money on repaying debts and small home improvements, per Oklahoma Watch.
But she received a letter on January 13 saying she had to return the money, and told the outlet that returning the full sum would ruin her financially.
“You can’t just introduce that much money into someone’s life and then say: ‘Oops, sorry, you don’t really get it,'” she said, per the outlet.
Confusion over who is eligible
Oklahoma’s teacher bonus program hopes to recruit certified educators for classes in Pre-Kindergarten to the third grade, which the state department said is suffering “acute teacher shortages.”
The department also seeks to fill a shortage of special education teachers, and budgeted $16 million in total for the bonuses.
Teachers could receive between $15,000 to $50,000 — depending on their experience — if they moved to an Oklahoma school district and taught those classes. They would have to commit to a five-year stint to be eligible.
The bonuses can be bigger if the teachers commit to a rural or poorer school, though the maximum is $50,000, per the state department website.
Another requirement stated by the website since April 2023 is that teachers are only eligible if they weren’t employed at an Oklahoma school district in the 2022/23 school year.
This was the source of confusion for several teachers like Bojorquez, a teacher in Oklahoma last year but still received the money, Oklahoma Watch reported.
The outlet reported that $185,000 was paid to teachers who didn’t qualify for the bonuses and that $105,000 was overpaid to teachers based on their years of experience.
Another teacher, Kristina Stadelman, told the Associated Press that she had correctly indicated in her bonus application that she was a special education teacher in an Oklahoma district last year.
But she still received a $29,000 bonus from the department after taxes. She’s been told to return the money by the end of February, per the outlet.
Stadelman, a mother of four who is pregnant with her fifth child, told the outlet she did not have the money to pay the state back.
It’s not immediately clear how the education department will enforce the clawbacks.
In a memo to legislators, state schools superintendent Ryan Walters responded to Oklahoma Watch’s report by saying that 500 teachers were recruited through the bonus signing program, the local daily The Oklahoman reported.
He added that the teachers who signed their contracts with the bonuses were “aware of the terms of the contract, what would trigger a clawback, and what the qualifications were for the bonus.”
Walters’ memo said media reports about the program portrayed “an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the teacher signing bonus program.”
Meanwhile, Bojorquez filed a lawsuit on Monday against the department and Walters because of their demands that the teachers return the bonuses, per The Oklahoman reported. It accuses the department of breaching its contract, and seeks $75,000 in damages and for Bojorquez to not be liable to repay her bonus.
A spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside regular business hours by Business Insider.