Oklahoma Demands Teachers Repay Up to $50,000 in Wrongly Issued Bonuses

Oklahoma educators,  having mistakenly been awarded bonuses as high as $50,000,  are now grappling with the urgent requirement to repay these funds.

Joy Turns to Despair

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As a mother of four, with a fifth on the way, Kristina Stadelman was overjoyed to receive a $50,000 bonus for accepting a challenging special education teaching position in Oklahoma. She invested the funds in home improvements and a new car for her expanding family. 

Two Days of Tears

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Her joy, however, turned to dismay when the Oklahoma State Department of Education informed her of an error in the payment, demanding its swift return. Stadelman expressed her distress, “I don’t obviously have the money to pay it back by the end of February.” 

 “I came home the day I found out and just cried for two days straight.”

Bipartisan Outrage

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The mishandling of the payments, initially reported by Oklahoma Watch, has sparked bipartisan criticism against the state’s education agency, with some lawmakers arguing against the repayment requirement. 

Oklahoma’s Teacher Pay

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Oklahoma ranks 38th in the nation for average teacher salary, at approximately $54,800, based on data from the National Education Association. 

Reevaluating Educational Incentives

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The bonus program, designed to attract new talent to the most demanding teaching roles, is now under legislative scrutiny, with proposals to modify the payment method and strengthen the selection process.

Silence on Bonus Error Numbers

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Despite inquiries, the department spokesperson remained silent regarding the number of bonuses mistakenly issued and the strategies for their retrieval. Oklahoma Watch revealed that a minimum of nine teachers were instructed to return bonuses varying between $15,000 and $50,000. 

Misdirected Funds

school, teaching, learning

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The publication disclosed that an aggregate of $185,000 was allocated to ineligible teachers, with an additional $105,000 excessively paid to those qualifying for lower amounts. 

Blaming Teachers and Media

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State Superintendent Ryan Walters, responsible for initiating the program, attributed some of the erroneous payments to teachers misrepresenting their credentials and experience. 

He accused the media of exacerbating the situation. 

500 Teachers, But At What Cost?

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“The press has jumped the gun on their reporting, excluding vital details on the contracts and our auditing system,” Walters stated in a memo to legislative leaders, as reported by The Associated Press. “The fact of the matter is that over 500 teachers were recruited to Oklahoma classrooms through this program.”

Criticism Mounts Against State Superintendent

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Despite his claims that the program successfully attracted over 500 teachers to Oklahoma schools, bipartisan legislators have voiced strong disapproval of Walters and the department’s handling of the issue.

Anxiety Among Educators

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State Representative Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican and head of the House Common Education Committee, empathized with the affected teachers. “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,” she remarked. 

Who’s Responsible? 

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Baker also pointed out that the responsibility for ensuring proper oversight in selecting eligible recipients for the bonus lay with the State Department of Education. 

A Spike in Blood Pressure

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Kristina Stadelman, one of the affected teachers, shared with the AP that her bonus amounted to about $29,000 after taxes. The shock of being deemed ineligible due to her prior full-time special education position, which she claims to have declared in her application, caused her blood pressure to surge. 

A History of Financial Controversies

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This incident isn’t the first controversy involving Walters, a conservative Republican heading the department. 

He has been previously criticized for alleged misallocation of public funds, including over $1.7 million on non-educational items from federal COVID relief funds and over $4,000 on non-essential travel, despite a ban on such expenditures by the governor.

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