Off the Books

A school district administrator's extracurricular foreign recruiting prompts investigations in two countries

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.

Ligaya Avenida is seen here (left) addressing Filipino teachers at a 
recent conference of the Filipino American Educators Association of 
California.
Ligaya Avenida is seen here (left) addressing Filipino teachers at a recent conference of the Filipino American Educators Association of California.

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.

An H1-B visa requires that an employer sponsor the recipient for a particular job. And, the U.S. Department of Labor mandates that employers meet certain requirements in hiring foreign workers using H1-B visas, including that they pay prevailing wage, and that they publicize the jobs prior to filling them with foreign workers, giving U.S. citizens the right to apply or complain.

Initially, the plan was to bring the Filipino teachers recruited by Avenida to the U.S. on H1-B visas.

After they were selected, each of the 15 teacher candidates was contacted by Eduardo Encinas, the Philippine businessman who was supposed to help them arrange for their visas and travel.

In court papers, Avenida says that she knew Encinas through an associate of her husband's in his international trade business, Avenida & Associates. However, according to San Mateo business filings, Ligaya Avenida also is an owner of Avenida & Associates.

Two Philippine teachers who were offered, but ultimately declined, teaching jobs in San Francisco recall that Avenida introduced Encinas at the Peninsula Hotel orientation. After they were selected, the teachers say, they went to a meeting at a bottled water company in Quezon City (Manila) called Ecogreen International, where Encinas does business.

Encinas gave each of the 15 recruits a written offer for a teaching job from the San Francisco Unified School District, on school district letterhead, signed by Dr. William Rada, assistant superintendent. The offer to Geraldine Oris, who was to be a bilingual teacher in the district, was $29,729 -- starting teacher salary at the time -- for one year beginning in September 1998. Encinas also gave Oris and her colleagues INS forms to complete for H1-B visas, and discussed payment.

"Mr. Encinas [said], 'You pay $3,000 for everything, that includes lawyers' fees, tickets, airfare, and other incidental fees,'" Oris recalls. "'You don't have to pay it all right away. You pay $300 first, and when everything is OK, you pay the rest.'"

In April 1998, Oris says, she paid Encinas $300 and gave him completed paperwork for her visa and a copy of her school transcripts. Katrina dela Cruz, another teacher recruit, says she did the same thing. (Both teachers later filed sworn statements with the NBI about the recruiting.)

At the end of June, Oris received a letter from Avenida, again on SFUSD letterhead, stating that the district had received notification from the INS that the national quota for H1-B visas had been reached, and the federal government would not approve the teachers' applications. Avenida's letter stated that she was exploring options for employing the teachers with a permit used for participants in international exchange programs, known as the J visa.

"Originally, we didn't know about the J visa," Avenida explained in a recent interview. "Until the H1-B visa quota was reached; then we were sort of caught. Immigration told us that they could not approve it."

Avenida says she asked the California Department of Education about sponsoring a visiting teachers exchange program. In July, Encinas called the waiting teachers in Manila to another meeting. According to Oris and dela Cruz, Encinas told them that because the H1-B program was full, the district would be using J visas to bring the teachers to San Francisco. The J visa restricts the teachers to a maximum three-year stay, which will be up next year.

"Some people wanted to go ahead and use J visas and others wanted to wait for the next H1-B [cycle]," says Oris. "I told [Encinas] I'm not getting the job because I wasn't sure about the J visa. And besides, I had already enrolled in school [for a master's degree]."

Dela Cruz also did not accept the position in San Francisco. But neither teacher received her $300 back -- nor, for that matter, did they request it -- which is a matter of particular concern to the NBI, according to investigator Bolivar. The remaining 13 teachers came to San Francisco in August 1998, and began working in the district. None was available for comment. It's unknown if, how, or to whom they paid the remainder of the $3,000. However, part of the discrimination lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District filed in 1998 claims that Avenida received some of the money. In a statement filed with the suit, two people involved in elementary school programs said that they were told the following by Mitsi Carmona, one of the Filipino teachers:

"All of the 13 teachers paid $3,000 each to a middleman who said that he is going to share the amount with Ligaya Avenida of the Human Services, SFUSD."

Avenida says that she did not receive any of the money paid to Encinas. And, contrary to what the teachers in Manila say, Avenida claims none of the applicants was required to pay fees in advance.

Although Encinas told the recruits part of their fees would be used to pay lawyers, Avenida says no lawyers were involved in the process. Instead, she says, the California Department of Education handled the visa paperwork. Avenida says Encinas was actually a consultant for the SFUSD, even though he was never paid by the district. She explains the basis for the $3,000 fees this way:

"I think that part of it was to pay for the transportation. In order to make this right, we had to ask someone in the Philippines [Encinas] to do all of the legwork. We needed to make sure that employment experience [of the prospective teachers] was validated -- there are many instances where we find fraudulent things.

"There were some costs with whatever the consultant [Encinas] had to do. I believe it was $2,500 to $3,000. They had nothing to do with a lawyer. There was no lawyer involved. The visa was given by the state department [California Department of Education].

"The cost was for [Encinas] preparing whatever is needed, the background check and making sure that the candidates were truly qualified. Whatever clearance is needed in order for them to leave the country. The fee was never to go for any kind of visa from here.

"The only conditions was that he had exclusive right to do travel arrangements and charge them a fee. He had been in the travel business for about 15 years. During the time that he was a travel agent, he worked with people going overseas. We simply hired him as a consultant.

"If we had to pay [costs to bring in foreign teachers]," she said, "we wouldn't recruit from there."

By all accounts, the 13 teachers who arrived from the Philippines in 1998 to teach in the San Francisco Unified School District are well-educated and qualified. They received emergency teaching credentials, which grant any new teacher one year to pass California's teacher credential test, and two years to make up missing education credits. Of course, the Filipino teachers were also bilingual Tagalog and English educators.

Sophia New would like to know why the school district didn't hire Filipino-American teachers in the same manner. New, a long-term substitute in the SFUSD, applied for a full-time teaching job before the foreign teachers were hired, but was unsuccessful.

She filed a discrimination complaint against the district with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After attempts to mediate the dispute between New and the school district failed, the EEOC issued a statement that essentially said New had the right to take the school district to court. And, she did.

In November 1998, New filed a lawsuit against the district, Avenida, Assistant Superintendent William Rada, and Leni Juarez, principal at the district's Filipino Education Center. New alleges that she was discriminated against because she was denied a full-time teaching position in the district when the Filipino teachers were hired.

New immigrated from the Philippines to San Francisco in 1980. She has a nearly complete master's degree in Oriental cultures from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. She's been either a teacher's aide or substitute teacher in the SFUSD schools since 1988. During that time, she says, she completed her teaching credential program at California State University at Hayward and the University of San Francisco. She has had emergency credentials and temporary credentials from the state. Now a certified bilingual teacher, New commutes daily to the West Contra Costa Unified School District, where she is a full-time elementary school teacher.

For some reason, despite its teacher shortage, the SFUSD would not hire Sophia New. In her lawsuit, New claims Avenida instead chose to hire friends and relatives, including Avenida's daughter, who is a teacher in the district. New also claims that she was not hired so that Avenida and the school district could bring in foreign workers.

Avenida and the district have denied New's allegations. But New didn't just take her complaints to the courthouse.

New and another teacher also filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Justice Department found no discrimination against New. Investigators found that New was not more qualified (especially in math, science, and special education ) than the Filipino teachers, and therefore not discriminated against. Justice officials refused comment on whether or not they are investigating the circumstances surrounding the recruitment of foreign teachers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor has an active investigation into the visa program of the San Francisco Unified School District. Labor investigators declined to mention specifics, but sources close to the case say the department is looking at whether the district violated the law by improperly bringing in the foreign teachers.

The U.S. State Department allows a fixed number of teachers in on J visas, or "exchange visas," for the purpose of cultural exchange and training. The idea being that the person on the J visa is not coming to fill a job, so much as to gain a particular skill or insight.

"Each school district takes on orientation and staff development for them," says Edda Caraballo, a bilingual education consultant in the California Department of Education's Migrant International Education Office. "Throughout a lot of the multicultural orientation and staff development, they get a lot of understanding of American culture."

California has more than 200 teachers from a handful of countries working with J visas in schools through something called the Exchange Visitor Program. Some 45 of those are from the Philippines, many recruited with the assistance of Avenida.

Avenida asserts that the recruits really are exchange teachers, despite the fact that the J visa program was used only after the INS refused work visas for the teachers. She describes San Francisco's program: "Their [cultural] exchange would be the fact that they are with American students and American colleagues. The intent is for them to be able to learn. They will be here for three years only."

Caraballo, who assisted the SFUSD in obtaining J visas for the Filipino teachers, says that the State Department is strict in not letting the J visas become substitute work visas as demand rises. In fact, Caraballo says she now advises school districts to recruit with regular H1-B (work) visas in order to avoid problems.

But that's exactly where the problems began for the SFUSD. Were this a traditional teacher exchange program, there would have been agreements already in place with specific foreign countries -- like Spain, which has been sending teachers to the United States for several years. (Caraballo says that California is still working on an agreement with the Philippines.) And, in a typical exchange program, there would be a certain number of spaces set aside each year for teachers.

Instead, the school district attempted to hire foreign teachers with a work visa, for which it apparently didn't file the proper paperwork. And when that didn't work, the district obtained "visiting teacher" visas through the state Department of Education for the same teachers. Meanwhile, a businessman supposedly working on behalf of the district appears to have collected $3,000 from at least 15 teachers for the privilege of coming to a $30,000-a-year job in one of the most expensive cities in the United States, all in the name of cultural exchange.

The Labor Department is also investigating the fees the recruits were required to pay Encinas. Under current law, employers are prohibited from charging a fee for visas, but there is no penalty for doing so (this will change with an amendment that goes into effect later this year). Employers must also pay foreign workers "prevailing wage." If the Filipino teachers were made to pay $3,000, or about 10 percent of their salary, to their employer or a representative of their employer, then they may no longer be making the same wage as their American counterparts.

Each violation carries a minimum fine of $1,000.

Last October, two of the 13 teachers who had been recruited from the Philippines died in a shocking explosion of violence. Noel Ridual, a math teacher at Lincoln High School, and Maria Marquicias, a special education teacher at Balboa High School, shared a flat in San Francisco. Ridual's wife and toddler had recently come from the Philippines to join him.

Lorenzo "Sol" Silva, a 62-year-old security guard who lived downstairs, walked into the teachers' apartment and started shooting. All of the adults died instantly, and Silva then killed himself. Jessica Ridual, the 2-year-old daughter of Noel Ridual and his wife, was wounded, but survived. Ridual's wife's parents came to San Francisco to pick up their granddaughter, and take their daughter's and son-in-law's bodies back home.

Now, only 11 of the original 15 teachers recruited in 1998 remain in San Francisco.

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