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Oklahoma awarded life-changing bonuses to teachers, but then demanded some of them back

From left to right: Kay Bojorquez, Anita Hopson Malone, Kristina Stadelman
From left to right: Kay Bojorquez, Anita Hopson Malone, Kristina Stadelman

Kristina Stadelman sat at her dining room table, cradling her 3-day-old son. She said she was trying to focus on enjoying this moment with her baby instead of the demand letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education laid in front of her.

Stadelman teaches special education to kindergarten through fourth-grade students in the Oklahoma City metro area. This is her fifth year in the classroom, so the department said she qualified for a $50,000 bonus, the maximum under State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ new Teacher Signing Bonus program. After taxes, about $29,000 hit her bank account in November.

With the money, her family was able to make some home improvements, place a down payment on a bigger car for their now-seven-member family and support the household while she takes time off with the baby. Then the department demanded it all back.

“I got an email … it was like the second week of January, saying I have to pay it back by the end of February,” Stadelman said. “I’m like, how am I supposed to do that?”

The state department notified Stadelman she was not eligible for the bonus after all because she taught in an Oklahoma school district last year. According to program rules, eligible teachers cannot have taught in an Oklahoma public school during the last school year. Stadelman thought she would be eligible for it by moving to a new school in Oklahoma City. She said she misunderstood the requirements.

Stadelman listed her employment history on her application, records show. If the department had that information from the start — information that disqualified her — she said she wondered why they sent her the money in the first place.

“I don't think it's my mistake,” Stadelman said. “And I think that they need to take the brunt of it because they made the error.”

The department is demanding the entire $50,000 back, including what had been taken out for taxes. She has only until the end of February to pay it all back before it goes to a collection agency.

“It felt really surreal,” Stadelman said through tears. “I just broke down that day, and I just came home and sat in silence. It was hard.”

Stadelman received a letter from the State Department of Education informing her she was not eligible for the bonus and needed to pay it all back.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Stadelman received a letter from the State Department of Education informing her she was not eligible for the bonus and needed to pay it all back.

Stadelman is one of at least nine teachers facing a similar scenario.

The Department of Education overpaid at least $290,000 in teacher bonuses and is working to claw back the money mere months after it was distributed. Nine teachers have been issued demands for repayment. Those interviewed by StateImpact and Oklahoma Watch say they were blindsided by orders to return the money, and doing so will be financially devastating.

The overpayments occurred because the department did not verify teachers’ information before disbursement.

The department said $185,000 was awarded to teachers who did not qualify at all for the program, and $105,000 was overpaid to teachers the department said were qualified for lower bonus amounts than what they received.

Department spokesperson Dan Isett said those errors should not diminish the overall success of the program, which the department is now auditing. Asked why the department went ahead with bonus payments to teachers whose information it had yet to verify, Isett said verification is ongoing.

“Your questions have emerged in the middle of our ongoing process of rolling out, administering and ensuring accountability in this program,” Isett wrote in an email. “When we are completed with this project, there will be a final report highlighting all the applicable data and results from the program — including the steps taken to protect taxpayers.”

Rolling out a $16 million program

Walters announced the bonus program in April, one of his first major policy initiatives. In all, 951 teachers applied for bonuses, and 522 received amounts ranging from $15,000 to $50,000.

Participants had to be new or returning to the classroom and teaching special education or pre-K through 3rd grade. Teachers working in rural or high-poverty schools qualified for bigger stipends.

Walters has touted the success of the bonus program in media interviews.

“We’ve launched the largest teacher recruitment program in the country,” Walters said Nov. 13 in one such interview with FOX 25 (KOKH-TV). “Having over 950 teachers apply to come to Oklahoma to teach.”

Walters’ claims led GOP leaders in the House of Representatives to seek data from the Department and, when it wasn’t provided, they issued a subpoena in December. Within a week, Walters complied with the subpoena and provided data on the teacher bonus program, along with other requested information.

The incentives cost $16 million in federal money earmarked for COVID-19 recovery and students with disabilities.

A review of recipients found five who received bonuses but shouldn’t have; four of those taught in an Oklahoma classroom last year, which should have disqualified them. Those four indicated on their initial applications they taught last year and included the district in which they were employed. The state has demanded they return the bonus.

Four additional teachers were overpaid and are being told to partially refund the state. On top of that, the department says five more teachers are under review and being followed up with.

Bonus payments were made from October to December. In response to a request under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, the department provided data on Dec. 1, which Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact analyzed and started asking Isett questions Jan. 1.

In response, Isett said the report was a working document, and some data verifications had not happened. He said the department is implementing a three-tier review process and an ongoing audit of high bonus payouts.

Bonuses created life-changing opportunities, but clawbacks are causing nightmares

Critics, including school superintendents and lawmakers, were concerned about the potential for clawbacks when the program was announced. But it seemed those would trickle in as teachers moved jobs or away from the profession, breaking the required 5-year commitment, not a result of the initial payments being awarded incorrectly.

Kay Bojorquez applied for the bonus program last fall after a supervisor encouraged her, mistakenly believing that she qualified. She thought they were looking for people who obtained special education certification in the past five years, but she should have been ineligible because she taught last year. On the application, she reported being employed as a teacher at Epic Charter Schools last year.

“As far as I understood, I met all the criteria,” she said. “That’s why my name got put in the hat in the first place. I thought I had to be a teacher last year.”

In November, the department informed her she qualified for the maximum of $50,000. It seemed too good to be true, Bojorquez said. Her finances were strained from years of caregiving for her parents and newly stressed from paying college tuition bills for her son. When she received the money, she made a few small home improvements but mostly paid off debts, hoping to improve her credit score to qualify for better college loans.

On Jan. 13, she received the email from the department telling her to return the $50,000.

“When I read the letter, I threw up,” she said. “I’ve had two panic attacks in the last two days.”

Bojorquez said the anxiety was so great she was unable to sleep.

Paying it back, she said, will financially ruin her.

She said it’s not her fault. If the department failed to verify her eligibility, they should have to cover their mistake, she said.

“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 $50,000 bonus wasn’t what drew Anita Hopson Malone, a special education teacher in the Oklahoma City metro area, back to the classroom. She found out about the signing bonus after committing to her district. She said the bonus was unexpected but welcomed.

After taxes, Hopson Malone got about $29,000, which she spent paying down debts. That allowed her to get approved for a mortgage to buy her first home, on which she will close in a few weeks. At 62 years old, Hopson Malone said she’s excited about spending time in her new house’s big family room with a fireplace, doing craft projects and painting her walls bright colors.

“Once I had the opportunity to get in this program, I was like, ‘OK, this is our one shot at trying to find a home,’” Hopson Malone said.

But because of a dispute about Hopson Malone’s years of service, the department sent her an email a month after she received the bonus, telling her she had only four years of service. That meant she didn’t qualify for the $50,000.

Now, Hopson Malone is waiting to hear from the department how much she is supposed to repay. Isett wrote in an email to StateImpact that her corrected bonus amount was $30,000 for working four years instead of five, a claim Hopson Malone still disputes.

But even more frustrating, she said, was that this particular issue was already identified by the department and resolved months before.

Teachers describe frustrating back-and-forth with department

In Hopson Malone’s application, she listed five years of experience in the classroom. In August, the department emailed her a notice saying she was eligible for the full $50,000. In September, she received a contract, but only for $15,000. The department then sent a corrected contract for $50,000.

When the bonus didn’t come in October as expected, she contacted the department. She said she called several times before she was able to get in contact with the right person.

She was told she had only four years of teaching on record. The fifth year, she told the department, was at an Oklahoma City charter school. An OSDE employee told her they would look into it.

When she received the $50,000 bonus in November, minus taxes, she said she thought the issue had been resolved, that she could trust the department’s vetting process to get it right.

But she received word from the department in January reversing what she thought she’d resolved: their records indicated she only taught four years instead of five. She said she is talking things over with her teacher’s association representative before she engages again with the department over the discrepancy. She’s concerned this situation will put her dreams of homeownership in jeopardy.

“I was coming back to teach, and here was this blessing that was given to me,” Hopson Malone said. “And now you just want to snatch it back.”

Several bonus applicants described a chaotic process and some said they struggled to decipher the program qualifications.

Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact reported on June 22 how some district leaders were receiving questions they didn’t know how to answer because of a lack of guidance from the department.

One superintendent said she told her entire staff to apply after she couldn’t decipher the qualifications.

Teacher Julia Howard, who moved from Arkansas and qualified for the maximum bonus, said she had to keep following up on her application. When she didn’t receive the money in October, as expected, she called again and a department staffer said she didn’t qualify.

After re-submitting her documents, someone told her she did qualify but they previously failed to check her eligibility correctly. Howard said she thought it was sketchy, and she wondered who was running the show at the Education Department.

The eligibility rules also changed throughout the application process. For instance, program rules say an emergency-certified teacher must obtain a non-emergency teaching certification before the 2023-2024 school year. When StateImpact and Oklahoma Watch checked, four bonus recipients still have only an emergency certification.

The department said those teachers are working toward standard certification.

“Our goal is to recruit as many certified and special education teachers to Oklahoma public schools as we can,” Isett wrote. “After reviewing certification processing times during the summer, we allowed participants who had applied but were pending a non-emergency certification to remain on the eligibility list.”

Additionally, despite the program’s original guidelines, educators who taught during the last school year were eligible for the bonus if they taught part-time.

Walters asks for state dollars to offer more recruitment bonuses

Walters proposed expanding the bonus program using state money next year. His agency’s budget request includes more than $60 million for teacher bonuses and tutoring stipends to support his philosophy of using a pay-for-performance model to supplement teacher salaries.

Oklahoma state superintendent Ryan Walters at the House A and B subcommittee on Education at the Oklahoma Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.
Doug Hoke
The Oklahoman
Oklahoma state superintendent Ryan Walters at the House A and B subcommittee on Education at the Oklahoma Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

He asked the Legislature for $10 million to pay for signing bonuses for up to 350 new math and science teachers; amounts would again max out at $50,000 and also come with a clawback mechanism.

He also asked for $16 million for bonuses for teachers whose students demonstrate reading growth and $6 million for teachers whose students demonstrate growth in math. The House of Representatives education budget committee chairman, Mark McBride, R-Moore, said this month he will consider filing a bill to implement those proposals. McBride and Walters’ public feuding has simmered recently and the two have reset their relationship.

But after dealing with the vetting lapses that plagued the first round of signing bonuses, educators, such as Kristina Stadelman, don’t trust the department to correctly manage programs like these. She said she regrets signing up for the bonus.

Stadelman said despite the nightmare her family is experiencing from the clawback, she’s trying to focus on what matters the most.

“My children are more important than this right now,” Stadelman said. “I didn’t want to have something like this bearing over me.”

After finishing her maternity leave, Stadelman plans to return to the classroom. She has a master’s degree in special education, and that’s where her passion lies. But for a position experiencing such a critical shortage statewide, Stadelman said she wishes she felt like her state cared. Instead, it’s saddling her with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

“Most teachers go into the profession knowing that they’re not going to make a big amount of money,” Stadelman said. “But I love what I do, and I love working with kids that struggle a little bit more than other kids.”

“And so to have a state that’s supposed to like, support you — you know, the education department — you’d think that they would be more understanding,” Stadelman said.

This story was reported in partnership with Oklahoma Watch education reporter Jennifer Palmer.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education.
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