Ryan Walters' education department incompetently strikes again. Who will undo the damage?
Oklahoma teachers told they owe their bonuses back, turning lives upside down
There’s a story you must read.
The Oklahoman ran it on its front page today, as it should, yet it comes from Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news operation that does great work, similar to The Frontier.
Given Oklahoma Watch brought in into the world, maybe check it out here, you don’t even need a subscription.
Here’s the gist.
That teacher signing bonus program state superintendent of public instruction Ryan Walters is so proud of, well, it’s ruining people’s lives.
Specifically, Oklahoma Watch, through the investigative work of reporters Jennifer Palmer and Beth Wallis, has brought forth the plight of Kristina Stadelman, who was told by the state department of education she was due $50,000 minus taxes, or $29,000.
The dough arrived in her bank account in November.
Only now, that same state education department is telling her a mistake was made, she was not due the money in the first place and must now pay it all back, and not just the $29,000, but the $50,000.
Of course, as happens with windfalls, much of the money’s already been spent, on a larger vehicle to serve her growing family for one thing; not to mention life itself, the money allowing her to take time away from work to attend to her newborn son.
The problem is Stadelman didn’t actually qualify for the bonus program, which is reserved for teachers who did not teach in Oklahoma the previous academic year. Of course, the department of education had that information when it incorrectly identified Stadelman to be a qualified applicant for the bonus.
Maybe you can claim Stadelman shouldn’t have applied for the bonus in the first place, but she did not green light herself for it, nor was she trying to pull a fast one, nor was any of the information she offered incorrect. Possibly, she did not memorize all the fine print.
According to Oklahoma Watch, Stadelman is not alone. It reports at least nine Oklahoma teachers have been placed in Stadelman’s predicament and at least $290,000 in bonuses have been sent to non-qualifying subjects who are having their lives turned upside down as a result.
That’s the story.
Here’s the conclusion.
Make nice with Ryan Walters at your own peril, the peril of the state he’s supposed to be serving, the peril of all things good and right because he is none of those things and unyieldingly negligent, too.
Like, is it any surprise mistakes carrying human costs were made inside a hollowed out state agency, the leader of which is reportedly never there, the employee count is ever dwindling and the leadership within is non-existent?
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Even things Walters signed up to keep a sharp eye on in the past, like oversight of the early post-COVID-era Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds, turned into scandal.
Why would anybody think a department he fails to run, that he uses as a political club rather than a problem-solving entity, could bat a thousand or anything close trying to administer a $16 million program.
It’s like Walters needs his own compliance department everywhere he goes.
Though I’d love to be wrong, most infuriating is what I’m all but positive will not happen.
That is, nobody with the power to turn the lives of these teachers and their families right-back-up is likely to step forward.
Perhaps you can ask each bonus-recipient-in-error if they have any of the misgiven dough lying around and would they like to voluntarily give it back, out of their own pure heart, for the good of the state.
Perhaps you can do that, but what you can’t do is expect or demand anything else because they’ve done nothing wrong.
But who will be there to see that happens?
Who will be there to let them get back to their lives, to get the state off their back, to pull them out of the threats and preposterous inconvenience now enveloping them?
Governor Kevin Stitt called for a special legislative session, a political stunt made to make it appear he’s trying to reduce taxes (for rich-don’t-need-the-break families like his own, I’m sure).
Thursday, state senate pro tem Greg Treat (R-OKC) announced that session will last minutes, if not seconds, after being gaveled in on Monday.
Were Stitt to pivot and, instead, demand legislators, by whatever means necessary, make the problems the education department’s latest malfeasance go away, he might be on to something.
Or Stitt could act in other ways, like taking to his bully pulpit, announcing Republicans and Democrats alike should agree the affected teachers, and any others just like them, having acted in good faith, should be forgiven the education department’s incompetence.
But would he?
He’s the one who gave Walters political life in the first place, allowing him to do state work before becoming a state employee, then naming him education secretary, then being his greatest supporter as he ran for superintendent?
I can’t imagine.
Then there’s the legislature its ownself, the man within previously most eager to lock horns with Walters being rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore).
Yet, ever since Walters responded to a subpoena sent by McBride (and house speaker Charles McCall), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on education, the two are suddenly kosher.
Also, McBride is always happy to explain he’s not interested in the side shows, nor is he a policy hack, but an appropriator.
So is he going to do anything about misappropriations by the education department turning a few teacher’s lives horribly upside down?
Will Treat or McCall?
They have whole conferences to wrangle on myriad other priorities. Would they put all of it on hold to do the right thing on a matter concerning just a few folks, none of which employ lobbyists, nor fund PACs.
Again, I’m willing to be surprised, but I’m also certain about this:
Oklahomans, who understand incompetence when they see it, do not want an inept state agency cannonballing into the lives of teachers who were never not acting in good faith, never intending to do anything wrong.
So there’s a revenue hiccup because education department administrators couldn’t follow their own rules?
Live with it.
Make it right.