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Oklahoma schools chief says he's trying to let teachers keep bonuses paid in error

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters said Wednesday his agency is working to see if several teachers who were improperly awarded bonuses of up to $50,000 can keep them after he faced bipartisan criticism over attempts to recover the money.

During a press conference, Walters said the Oklahoma Department of Education is working closely with the federal government to ensure there is no clawback of the bonuses as long as all federal requirements are met.

“We have been in close contact with the feds throughout this entire project,” Walters said of the program that used federal funds to offer bonuses to new teachers who agreed to work for five years in hard-to-fill jobs like special education and early elementary.

“They’ve been kept in the loop of what we’re doing with these teachers so they don’t have to pay the funds back, but that there’s also accountability around the money,” he said.

Walters came under fire after reports that several teachers who were awarded the bonuses were being told they had to repay the funds by the end of February because it was determined they didn't meet all of the qualifications. At least two teachers were told they didn't qualify because they worked for a public school the previous year, although both said they indicated that on their applications.

The two teachers have sued Walters and the department for breach of contract, seeking to keep the awards as well as damages of more than $75,000.

Mark Hammons, an attorney who is representing the two teachers, said one of them was contacted by the department on Tuesday, but that there was no agreement to let them keep the bonuses.

“All they did was say they were eliminating the Feb. 29 deadline and that they were looking at other options,” Hammons said. “It was not a promise not to collect.”

Hammons said the teachers shouldn't be held accountable for the department's lack of oversight.

“You're a state agency. You have an obligation to the public as a whole to do this right and be accountable,” Walters said. “They didn't do it right and they don't want to be accountable for their own mistakes.”