TALLAHASSEE — When dozens of Florida teachers tried to cash their state-issued $1,000 bonus checks this week, they got a startling response: “insufficient funds.”
No, the State of Florida hasn’t run out of money. Instead, the bad checks are being blamed on a “banking error” by JPMorgan Chase.
Checks issued to at least 50 teachers in 22 different counties bounced because of the error, Florida Department of Education spokesman Jared Ochs said.
“We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and are working to correct it, including refunding any fees incurred by the recipients as a result,” Allison Tobin Reed, the bank’s vice president of communications, said in a statement to the Times/Herald.
Reed said the mistake impacted “a small number of people out of 176,000 payments made.” However, it was not immediately clear how soon impacted educators will have access to their $1,000 bonuses.
“The impacted individuals have been identified and we are diligently working to correct this banking error expediently,” Ochs said.
The $1,000 bonuses have been a prominent piece of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ legislative agenda, and received bipartisan support in the Florida Legislature.
The bounced checks came to light after Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, posted a photo to Twitter of one teacher’s “returned item notice” from the Jackson County Teachers Credit Union showing the check bounced for “not sufficient funds.” The teacher received the notice on Tuesday.
“Any Florida teachers out there whose bonus checks bounced?” Pizzo asked.
The banking error was confirmed by the state shortly after Pizzo’s tweet got attention on social media.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the state should have made people aware of the issue before being called out about it on Twitter.
“If there hadn’t been any social media attention, how long would it have taken for them to tell us?” Driskell said. “To me, it is embarrassing to see a check from the state with the governor’s signature bounce. It is embarrassing.”
The bounced checks were the latest glitch over DeSantis’ handling of $1,000 bonuses to teachers, principals and first responders, money that came from federal COVID relief funding.
Instead of sending the money to school districts to distribute, like in the past, DeSantis’ administration decided to issue the checks individually, with an accompanying letter signed by DeSantis. The state paid a private contractor $3.6 million to print and send the checks. That led some lawmakers and the union representing school teachers to accuse DeSantis of using the bonuses to score political points.
The state said that by sending the money directly, saying the $3.6 million was well below the 10 percent normally allotted or administrative costs on federal funding.
After dozens of checks bounced, Pizzo pointed back to that multi-million dollar contract.
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“Teaching moment: The individual political benefit in spending $3.6 million to print and send thousands of checks with your name on it, is outweighed by the more efficient and fiscally responsible option of direct deposit,” Pizzo said.