Oklahoma Teacher Sues Education Department After They Tried to Take Back a $50K Bonus

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Feb 02, 2024

After noticing an error on their side, the state Department of Education and the superintendent of public schools demanded that an Oklahoma teacher return the $50,000 bonus they gave her. The teacher responded by filing a lawsuit against them.

Why is this teacher suing? Who is right or wrong in this situation? Let’s get into it.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Want the Bonus Back

Kay Bojorquez, a special education teacher for Epic Charter Schools in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, received a bonus of $50,000 in November after applying for Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’s Teacher Signing Bonus program.

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The program was a part of the state’s attempt to get teachers back into public school classrooms or bring new teachers into the state.


Why Bojorquez Applied to the Program

The bonus program’s supervisor encouraged Bojorquez to apply. She did, not realizing that she would have been ineligible for the bonus because she taught in an Oklahoma school district last year.

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Bojorquez stated that she listed her employment as a teacher at Epic Charter Schools last year on her application. (via Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact).

The Oklahoma Teacher Believed She Qualified 

Believing she qualified for the program, Bojorquez signed up and received the bonus in her bank account. The Oklahoma State Department of Education demanded that at least nine teachers, including Bojorquez, return their bonus money by the end of February (via The Oklahoman).

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According to Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact, the department awarded $185,000 to teachers who did not qualify for the program. Officials overpaid another $105,000 to teachers by giving them bonuses larger than they qualified for.

Bojorquez Seemingly Can’t Repay the Bonus

“As far as I understood, I met all the criteria,” Bojorquez 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.”

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After receiving the maximum bonus in November, Bojorquez paid off her debts after years of paying off the caregiving for her parents and her son’s college tuition. She also used the money to make small home improvements. With most of the money spent, Bojorquez says paying the amount back in a short amount of time would financially ruin her.

Bojorquez Is Taking the Issue to Court

Bojorquez accuses the state’s Department of Education of breaking the contract she signed with applying for the program by attempting to take back the bonus it paid “when the contract does not provide for such action based on the (department’s) own, claimed error.”

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Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact reported the over-payments were a result of the department not verifying teachers’ information before disbursement.


Who’s At Fault? 

Bojorquez’s lawsuit also claims that the department’s attempt to take back the bonus is in “bad faith,” and is punishing the teacher for the department’s “own alleged negligence or malfeasance.”

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Source: KOKH/YouTube

Waters has declined on multiple occasions to acknowledge the errors of the program and is seemingly avoiding responsibility for these shortcomings.


Walters Say the Media is Conspiring Against Him and His Agency

Walters defended his decision to take back the bonuses through a memo sent to state legislative leaders on Monday. In this memo, Walters accused the media of conspiring to “actively lie” about his work with the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the credibility of the program.

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“What we have seen is a deliberate lie pushed by reporters, pushed by the media, to push a certain perspective,” Walters said. “They are trying to undermine my administration, they are trying to attack conservatism and education reform and I won’t stand for it.”


Walters Puts the Blame on the Press and Teachers

“What happens when we have members of the press, some of you, that decide your goal is to undermine the programs that we’re launching,” Walters said, “not talk about the 500-plus teachers we brought to the classroom, not talk about our efforts to ensure federal dollars were spent by Jan. 25, that money got in teachers’ hands and that those teachers stay in the classroom, but instead have decided to attack the program, attack our administration and lie to Oklahomans?”

Ryan Walters in a suit and tie talking to the press

Source: KOKH/YouTube

Walters said that Oklahoman journalists were doing a “disservice to Oklahoma” by “lying to their viewers, lying to their readers,” and undermining the trust of the people in the republic when they “trust in the work that you do.”


The Impact of Walters's Words and Actions

Walters said to The Oklahoman that only four teachers were affected by the $290,000 error. However, the reporter who worked on the story said Walters’s spokesman, Dan Isett, confirmed earlier that the number was nine.

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In a joint statement presented by Oklahoma Watch’s executive director, Ted Streuli, and Logan Layden, the managing editor of StateImpact, they said Walters called “us liars” during his earlier press conference addressing the issue.


The Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact Pushback

Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact continued reading their statement, saying, “We stand by our story and the month of research our reporters put into it. It is our policy to correct any factual errors in our work as soon as they are brought to our attention and verified.”

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“We have asked the Department of Education repeatedly to specify what erroneous information they believe our work contained,” the non-profit organization said. “They have not identified any inaccuracies except to say there were four teachers involved rather than nine. That conflicts with the written information the department provided.”


Should the Teachers Pay Back Their Bonuses? 

Walter trumpets the program as “the most successful teacher recruitment initiative in state history,” but the soon-to-be-bonus-less teachers aren’t raising a glass to celebrate the state’s achievement. They face the sting of repaying their bonuses within a month, leaving them far from feeling celebratory.

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Not everyone in Oklahoma’s legislature seems to agree with Walters’s efforts to claw back the money and blame the teachers and media for the agency’s error. Should the teachers have to pay back their bonuses? Let us know in the comments!