By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
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A school district administrator's extracurricular foreign recruiting prompts investigations in two countries On a March day in 1998, scores of hopeful Filipino teachers filled a meeting room of the elegant Peninsula Hotel in the financial district of Manila. Most were from top universities in the Philippines, and many were already teaching somewhere in that country. They'd come to this meeting after seeing advertisements at their universities or hearing from friends that a recruiter from the San Francisco Unified School District was in town. She was looking to hire teachers, and those assembled were interested in jobs in the United States.
The job seekers listened as Ligaya Avenida, an SFUSD administrator, introduced herself and her associates, then gave a rundown of how the hiring process would work. The first step of the screening required all of the applicants to take a written test. It assessed their competency, and the likelihood that they later could pass the official test required to gain California teaching credentials.
The following day, teachers who scored well on the test were invited back to the hotel for individual interviews with Avenida. One after the other, a steady stream of teachers filed in for half-hour sessions.
The following month, 15 teachers were notified that they'd been chosen to work at the SFUSD. They were told that a Philippine businessman -- Eduardo Encinas -- would handle the arrangements to get them to the U.S. The teachers were also told they would each have to pay Encinas $3,000 to handle paperwork and travel arrangements.
Now, nearly two years later, Avenida's recruiting trip is drawing scrutiny from at least three federal agencies in two countries.
Philippine investigators have already concluded that Avenida and Encinas probably broke that country's laws. In the U.S., the Department of Labor is investigating whether the teachers were brought to this country in violation of federal laws governing the hiring of foreign workers.
In addition, Avenida took the recruiting trips to the Philippines on her own initiative -- there was no specific SFUSD program, board directive, or funding for the scouting mission. And Encinas -- the Philippine businessman who received $3,000 from each of the teachers Avenida recruited -- is an associate of Avenida and her husband in a private business.
Some of the questions raised by Avenida's recruiting trip have also made their way into San Francisco Superior Court, where an S.F. teacher is suing the school district for discrimination, claiming that she was passed up for a full-time job when the foreign teachers were hired.
To be sure, the entire process of hiring foreign teachers is difficult. Like many school districts, the SFUSD is strapped for teachers, and has also recruited them from Hong Kong and Mexico.
But the hiring of the Filipino teachers is strikingly different from other foreign recruiting done by the SFUSD. None of the other foreign teachers hired by the SFUSD were made to pay for their jobs. There was no middleman consultant involved in any of the other SFUSD recruiting.
And certainly none of the other recruits paid a middleman who was a business associate of an SFUSD administrator.
Ligaya Avenida, a Philippine native, has worked her way up from teacher to various administrative positions in the San Francisco Unified School District during the past 27 years. As a program director in the human resources department, she is now in charge of recruiting and hiring teachers. She is also founder and former president of the Organization of Filipino Educators.
There is no question that the SFUSD needed teachers in 1998, when Avenida made one of her recruiting trips to Manila. The district had, shortly before, offered an early retirement plan aimed at clearing out teachers at the top of the salary scale. Suffice it to say, the offer was popular. More than 400 teachers left the district, causing an immediate shortage. And, like nearly every district in California, the SFUSD is constantly desperate for math, science, and special education teachers.
Between 1997 and 1999, Avenida made two trips to Manila to recruit teachers for the SFUSD, as well as coordinating the efforts of recruiters from other California districts. Oddly, the SFUSD did not pay for her trips.
Instead, Avenida says, she took time during her own vacations in Manila to recruit. "I could have had the school district pay for me to go," Avenida says, but did not "in the interest of saving some money."
But Avenida's informal trips may have run afoul of Philippine law.
Last fall, the Republic of the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation, which is roughly akin to the FBI, recommended that charges be filed against Avenida and Encinas for illegal recruiting. According to NBI investigator Raul Bolivar, the two did not register with the government as recruiters, as required by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency. The NBI also questions why two teachers wound up paying money to Encinas even though they never came to the U.S. The investigation in Manila is still pending, and no formal charges have been filed.
Hiring foreign workers is tricky business in the best of circumstances. Each year, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service issues a limited number of work visas to foreign professionals. Known as H1-B visas, they are commonly used by Silicon Valley employers to hire foreign engineers and the like. Once the maximum number of visas has been issued, the doors are closed until the next year.