Whistleblowers file lawsuits against Oklahoma education boss, top aide

FILE - Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters speaks during a special state Board of Education meeting discuss to the U.S. Department of Education's "Proposed Change to its Title IX Regulations on Students' Eligibility for Athletic Teams," April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City. Two former employees at the state Department of Education filed separate federal lawsuits Tuesday, May 30, against Walters and his top aide, alleging they were wrongfully fired the week before. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Two former employees at the State Department of Education filed separate federal lawsuits Tuesday against Republican State Superintendent Ryan Walters and his top aide, alleging they were wrongfully fired last week.

Cheryl McGee, the agency's former executive director of school-based mental health, claims in her lawsuit she was fired after being accused of sharing an email with the media. Matthew Colwell, who was a program manager of school success, says he was fired for sharing information with a state representative and the attorney general's office that Walters' proposed teacher pay plan violated federal and state laws and could end up costing the state $18 million.

Both lawsuits claim Matt Langston, Walters' chief policy advisor, sent an email last week to all employees at the agency threatening to terminate anyone who leaked internal documents to the press. Langston allegedly prepared the email in a format so that he could “trap” employees who shared the email with the media, McGee's lawsuit states.

“There were two purposes for this email. The first was to intimidate and chill the First Amendment rights of employees,” McGee's lawsuit says. “The second was to retaliate against employees who shared information about matters of public concern in the Department of Education with members of the press or outside officials.”

Mark Hammons, the attorney for both plaintiffs, described both of them as whistleblowers and said they are entitled to actual and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees.

Justin Holcomb, a spokesman for the agency, said the lawsuits were without merit.

“These legal claims are absurd, frivolous and a waste of taxpayer time and money,” Holcomb said in a text message to The Associated Press. “It's a political stunt with no legal merit.”

Also on Tuesday, a third former employee at the agency filed a tort claim notice of her intent to sue for wrongful termination after she claims she was fired for speaking to her local school board. Janessa Bointy, a school counselor specialist, identified herself as a state employee but told the board she was speaking only as a concerned parent. Bointy is represented by The Center for Employment Law.

Walters, a former public school teacher elected to the top public education job in November, has come under fire from members of his own party for his fiery rhetoric about banning books, fighting “woke ideology” in public schools and claiming teachers are indoctrinating children with liberal ideas. His agency released a jarring video last week portraying Walters as a crusader against woke ideology that many teachers said was misleading propaganda.

The state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, in an editorial on Tuesday called for lawmakers to explore ways to force him from office.


Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy