Oklahoma teachers are told to give back bonuses of up to $50k that were dished out to fill special education school jobs

At least nine Oklahoma teachers have been asked to return bonuses of up to $50,000 paid to fill special education positions.

The five-figure sums were accidentally given to teachers who were not eligible – and who are now being told they will have to pay it back several months later.

Kristina Stadelman, a teacher with four children and a fifth on the way, was thrilled when she received $29,000 after taxes for taking a hard-to-fill job as a special education teacher in the state.

She spent the money on home improvements and a new car for her growing family, but received a letter from the Oklahoma Education Department saying she had received the money in error and had to pay it back next month.

β€œI obviously don’t have the money to pay it back at the end of February,” Stadelman said. “I came home the day I found out and cried for two days straight.”

Kristina Stadelman (pictured), a teacher with four children and a fifth on the way, was thrilled when she received $29,000 after taxes for taking a hard-to-fill job as a special education teacher in the state. But she was left in tears when she was told she had until the end of February to pay it back

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters (pictured) is now under fire from politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties over the implementation of the program

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters (pictured) is now under fire from politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties over the implementation of the program

The distraught teacher said her blood pressure rose after she received the letter, which explained she was ineligible because she had previously worked as a full-time special education teacher in another district last year.

Stadelman said she explained that fact in her application but was still approved.

The scandal was first reported by Oklahoma watch last week. Another teacher, Kay Bojorquez, told the newspaper she was told she was eligible for a $50,000 payout in November.

But on January 13 she received the same letter as Stadelman. β€œYou can’t just throw that much money into someone’s life and then say, ‘Oops, sorry, you don’t really get it,’” Bojorquez said.

The reimbursement demands are drawing fierce criticism from Oklahoma’s education department from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom say teachers should not be forced to give back the money.

The average teacher salary in Oklahoma is about $54,800, which ranks 38th in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

The bonuses were awarded under an Oklahoma program designed to help recruit new teachers for the hardest-to-fill jobs, including elementary and special education.

In the aftermath of the accident, Oklahoma lawmakers want to overhaul the program to avoid paying out the bonuses all at once and implement a stricter screening process.

A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on how many bonuses were paid out in error or how the company plans to recover them.

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 did not qualify for the program at all, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lower amount, the outlet reported.

A total of $185,000 went to teachers who did not qualify for the program at all, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lower amount.

A total of $185,000 went to teachers who did not qualify for the program at all, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers who qualified for a lower amount.

The Oliver Hodge Building in the State Capitol complex is home to the Oklahoma State Department of Education

The Oliver Hodge Building in the State Capitol complex is home to the Oklahoma State Department of Education

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who implemented the program, suggested in a memo sent to legislative leaders Monday that some of the erroneous bonuses came because teachers “misrepresented their experience and qualifications.” He blamed the media for much of the fallout.

β€œThe press has attacked their reporting, leaving out vital details about the contracts and our audit system,” Walters wrote in the memo.

β€œThe fact is, more than 500 teachers have been recruited into Oklahoma classrooms through this program.”

Still, lawmakers from both parties have sharply criticized Walters and the agency.

β€œAs a former teacher, I can’t imagine the anxiety that something like this would cause β€” to qualify and receive a large bonus in my bank account, only to be told months later that I have to give it back,” said State Rep. Rhonda Baker . , a Republican from Yukon and chairman of the House Common Education Committee.

“It was the job of the Ministry of Education to properly monitor the vetting and approval of the bonus recipients.”

It’s not the first time that Walters, a conservative Republican who leads the department and who has embraced culture war issues such as banning books and attacking transgender students, has come under fire for allegedly misdirecting public funds.

A state audit of federal COVID funds for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), during the time 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 and furniture. and entertainment.

Walters also faced criticism after news outlet The Frontier reported this month that he spent more than $4,000 on out-of-state speaking engagements, media appearances and a horror movie premiere.

This is despite the governor’s executive order banning government spending on most travel outside of Oklahoma.