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Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters faces legal action by 3 former employees

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters applauds during the 2023 State of the State address.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters applauds during the 2023 State of the State address.

Three former Oklahoma State Department of Education employees are taking legal action over their terminations from the agency.

Cheryl McGee was the executive director of school based mental health for the agency, while Matt Colwell served as the executive director of school success. Both filed lawsuits this week, claiming they were wrongly fired for sharing information from the agency.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ chief policy advisor, Matt Langston, sent out an email on May 25, threatening employees with termination if they were found to have leaked information to the press.

Langston later posted on Twitter the email had been a ruse — different versions were sent to employees to track who leaked them.

Colwell said he was terminated for sharing information to the Attorney General and a state representative over concerns a new teacher signing bonus program "contravened the requirements of federal and state laws" and risked an $18 million cost to the state.

Mark Hammons, the attorney for McGee and Colwell, argues for two counts against Langston and Walters: that the email had a chilling effect on employees exercising First Amendment rights, and it unlawfully violated the employees' First Amendment rights; and that they were terminated in a manner described as “willful, malicious or, at the least, in reckless disregard of the Plaintiff’s federally protected rights.”

Another employee, Janessa Bointy, served as a school counselor specialist for about two and a half years. The Oklahomanreports Bointy spoke about adolescent mental health during the public comment section of an Edmond Public Schools school board meeting, which took place in the wake of a student suicide. Bointy has four children enrolled at Edmond. She was fired for allegedly breaching the agency’s confidentiality agreement and violating its media policy.

A spokesperson for Walters’ office provided the following statement, “Contrary to public servants, these individuals are political activists who have no business being funded by Oklahoma taxpayers.”

The lawsuits follow a contentious first few months of Walters' tenure.

Last month, a whistleblower claimed Walters’ administration failed to follow through on federal grant contracts worth millions of dollars, and that he outright lied to lawmakers about the status of grants.

Walters initially refused several invitations to speak to the House Education Appropriations and Budget committee this past legislative session. When he finally agreed to an invitation in early May, he referred to teachers’ unions as “terrorist organizations,” before the meeting adjourned abruptly.

In that hearing, Walters claimed about two dozen employees have either resigned or been fired from the State Department of Education since he took over the agency in January.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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