Home ‘Oops, sorry’: Oklahoma demands teachers pay back state bonuses from recruitment program
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‘Oops, sorry’: Oklahoma demands teachers pay back state bonuses from recruitment program

Rebecca Barnabi
business money
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Confusion about who was eligible for a teacher bonus program in Oklahoma has the state demanding at least nine educators return the money months later.

Although some of the teachers have already used the money to fund small home improvement projects or their children’s college education, the state is demanding full payment back to the program in a short amount of time.

The program is intended for special education and pre-kindergarten to 3rd-grade teachers who did not teach in an Oklahoma school district in the 2022-2023 school year, as reported by Business Insider. Teachers could receive between $15,000 and $50,000 for a five-year commitment. Bonuses of up to $50,000, the maximum, are possible for teachers who commit to a rural or disadvantaged school.

Nonprofit news organization Oklahoma Watch reported Thursday that at least nine teachers received letters demanding they return their bonuses, including Kay Bojorquez, who said the state education department told her in November that she qualified for a $50,000 bonus.

Bojorquez used the bonus to pay for her son’s college tuition, to repay debts and make small home improvements. Then, she received a letter in mid-January telling her to return the money. She told Oklahoma Watch that doing so 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.

The bonus program was intended to entice teachers to move to Oklahoma, which is experiencing “acute teacher shortages.”

According to Oklahoma Watch, $185,000 in bonuses was given to teachers who did not qualify, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers based on work experience.

The Associated Press reported that another teacher, Kristina Stadelman, said she correctly indicated in her bonus application that she was a special education teacher in an Oklahoma district last year. Yet, she received a $29,000 bonus from the department after taxes. She was informed she must return the money by the end of February. A mother of four, Stadelman is pregnant with her fifth child, and said she does not have the money to pay the state back.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters told Oklahoma Watch that 500 teachers were recruited through the bonus program, and that teachers who signed contracts were “aware of the terms of the contract, what would trigger a clawback, and what the qualifications were for the bonus.”

On Monday, Bojorquez filed a lawsuit against the state department of education. Her lawsuit accuses the department of breaching its contract and seeks $75,000 in damages and for Bojorquez to not be liable to repay her bonus.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.

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