Oklahoma Teachers Scramble To Repay Thousands for Mistaken Bonus
By April Fowell
- Education authorities in Oklahoma seek to recover at least $290,000 in incentives mistakenly awarded to multiple instructors.
- The State Department of Education demanded the return of funds from nine unintended recipients who received bonuses ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 each last fall.
- The erroneous payments were attributed to insufficient verification of data in applications for pay-based incentives, leading to overpayments and funds going to ineligible teachers.
Education authorities in Oklahoma are making an effort to recover incentives totaling at least $290,000 that they inadvertently gave to multiple instructors.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education earlier this month demanded that at least nine unintended recipients return the funds by the end of next month, after awarding them bonuses of between $15,000 and $50,000 each last fall.
This was reported by watchdog organization Oklahoma Watch last Thursday, citing interviews it conducted with affected employees. According to the publication, $105,000 was overpaid to instructors who qualified for a lower amount, and a total of $185,000 went to teachers who were not eligible for the program at all.
According to the source, the erroneous payments were sent to instructors who applied for the bonuses last autumn as part of a statewide initiative to employ pay-based incentives to attract teachers to hard-to-fill positions in Oklahoma schools. According to the watchdog, Oklahoma's education department paid out the money in mistake because its employees did not thoroughly verify the data submitted in the applications.
The program's implementer, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, stated in a message to legislative leaders on Monday that some of the erroneous incentives were caused by teachers who had "misrepresented their experience and qualifications." He attributed a large portion of the backlash to the media.
Lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, have sharply criticized Oklahoma's education department over the payback requests, arguing that the instructors shouldn't be made to return the money. According to the National Education Association, Oklahoma has the 38th-highest average teacher compensation in the nation at $54,800.
Misinformation About the Teachers' Signing Bonus
The memorandum initiates by addressing the prevalence of misinformation circulating in the press concerning the teacher signing bonus. Superintendent Walters asserts that the press has prematurely reported on the matter, omitting crucial details about the contracts and the auditing system.
Despite this, Walters emphasizes the program's considerable success. He expresses the district's commitment to exploring all available options to ensure teachers adhere to the contract's intent while maintaining accountability for taxpayers.
The use of federal cash is subject to a continuous audit procedure that complies with the conditions of the contract, according to Supt. Walters.
A copy of the contract for the teacher signing bonus was sent, even though the State Department of Education declined to comment when News 4 asked questions on Tuesday morning.
The instructor in the sample contract met the requirements for a $15,000 incentive. According to the statement, the program "generally requires" the teacher to commit to teaching for five years, starting with the 2023-2024 academic year, at a public school district in Oklahoma.
The instructor will have to reimburse a prorated portion of the incentive money if they are unable to complete the five-year commitment.
According to the teacher signing bonus contract, completing a full school year in a qualified teaching position results in a 20% reduction in the repayment obligation. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) holds the discretion to consider extraordinary circumstances preventing a teacher from continuing to teach, with OSDE solely determining the repayment amount.
The contract also stipulates that the applicant is responsible for any federal or state taxes related to the bonus payment. Additionally, it warns that any material misrepresentation in the bonus application process or failure to comply with the program may, at OSDE's discretion, lead to the repayment of all or part of the bonus payment. Superintendent Walters informed Republican lawmakers that the State Department of Education has identified several teachers who misrepresented themselves in the application process.