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Company under investigation

By Greg Gelpi

The Clayton County school system spent more than $7,000 to hire teachers through a company that is being investigated by the FBI and the State of California.

One senior school official called the revelation a "shocker," while a school board member wants someone to be held accountable.

The most damning allegation is that in the past the company offered money to school officials in other counties with envelopes of thousands of dollars in cash.

The president of Avenida International, the recruiting company used by Clayton County, said her company does not use illegal practices and that she was unaware of any investigations.

"That is really a very big lie," Ligaya Avenida said. "I can attest to you that there was no payoff to the district. If it was true, then this would be investigated."

Clayton school officials said that no payoff attempt occurred in this instance.

Avenida International is under investigation by an independent auditing agency authorized by the state of California and the San Francisco bureau of the FBI, said Thomas Henry, the chief executive officer of California's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team.

FBI Special Agent Joseph Montoya, who Henry said is conducting the investigation, wouldn't comment. Montoya said the FBI does not comment on investigations and went further to say that the FBI doesn't even confirm when it is conducting an investigation.

Henry wouldn't specify as to why his agency authorized an external audit. He did say that all investigations are conducted for at least one of three reasons.

"It would have to be fraud, illegal practices or misappropriations of funds for it to warrant this type of investigation," Henry said.

The investigation is part of a broader audit of the Oakland Unified School District and why it went bankrupt, he said.

KGO-TV/DT Channel 7, the ABC television affiliate in Oakland, aired an investigative report on Avenida International in November.

"Teachers were hired from the Philippines and then fired after just a few months on the job as part of a money-making scheme," Channel 7 reported.

Oakland Unified School District sent Mike Helms, who worked for the OUSD human resources department at the time, to the Philippines in August 2001.

Helms was offered envelopes of money as a "finder's fee," Channel 7 reported. Avenida International also paid for Helms to fly to the Philippines and paid for his expenses while there recruiting.

To his surprise, he found several highly qualified teachers.

Despite their qualifications, the station reported that the teachers were let go two days before the district went back to the Philippines for more teachers.

The television investigation found that the district let go of 54 of the 76 Filipino teachers hired through Avenida International from 2000 to 2002.

Helms resigned from the district because of the treatment of the teachers, the station reported. He now works for Solano County Human Resources in California.

Two Clayton County school officials flew to the Philippines in January on a recruiting trip arranged through Avenida International.

Mt. Zion High School Principal Don Stout and Director of Special Education Tom Erdmanczyk incurred $7,028.80 in expenses during a trip to the Philippines from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2, meant to address a special education teacher shortage in the county.

Avenida said she reimburses school systems for the expenses of sending one person if the system hires 10 or more teachers.

In defense of her company she provided a story about successes of recruiting teachers to Palm Beach, Fla. in 2001.

Erdmanczyk said that the school system needs to fill 30 of the system's 500 special education positions, but that number will increase when this school year ends if teachers decide to retire or leave the system.

Erdmanczyk said that 14 Filipino teachers were offered provisional contracts during the recruiting trip.

"The 14 we identified were top notch," he said. "The teachers were as qualified, if not more qualified, as the best teachers I've recruited."

If the teachers receive certification to teach in Georgia, they will come to the county on J visas and will begin teaching in the fall, Erdmanczyk said. Avenida recommended the J visa.

J Visas are three-year visas that allow people from other countries to come to the United States as part of a cultural exchange, but they must return once the visa expires.

"This is probably the shakiest thing about the whole deal," Erdmanczyk said. "To keep a special education teacher three years is about average."

He said that the state produces enough teachers to fill about a third of the state's teaching vacancies each year. The state educates even less teachers to fill special education vacancies.

A Google search on Avenida and her recruiting lists the Channel 7 investigation among the first few hits.

"I guess that I should get on Google and do some work on it," Erdmanczyk said, adding that maybe his preliminary work should have uncovered the investigations.

Erdmanczyk, who has recruited special education teachers for about 10 years, said he "can tell when it makes sense."

He said that he didn't do a reference check on Avenida because her presentation didn't appear out of the ordinary.

"I have to admit that I really didn't do that," Erdmanczyk said. "I have not been in the habit of checking."

He did contact two school systems Avenida offered as references, he said. Both school systems were pleased with Avenida's recruiting services.

While there are no allegations of any illegal practices or improprieties with Clayton County's recruiting trip, some school officials are calling for their own investigation.

Clayton County schools Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Ed Scott said he knew nothing of the investigations, but called it a "shocker."

Scott said to his knowledge no one from the Clayton County school received any money.

"First of all, I don't think that ever took place," he said. "We would cease to work with any company that is conducting illegal activities, although I doubt anything illegal happened here."

Scott said no teachers have been hired from the trip as of yet, but that 14 teachers have been offered "provisional contracts." The system is still working on obtaining visas and proper Georgia teaching credentials for the 14 teaching candidates.

"We have no obligation to the company at all," he said. "We can abort this concept at any time."

Scott said that recruiting falls under his department, but that Erdmanczyk was in charge of the trip.

Clayton County school board member Linda Crummy, a member of the board's personnel committee, said she had no idea that the school system had gone to the Philippines or was associated with a company under investigation.

"I certainly hope that we are not doing business with companies under investigation by the FBI," Crummy said. "I think we should do our homework before we go out and hire like this. This is something that we should definitely look into before taking any action."

Board member Barbara Wells said she didn't even know that the school system sent anyone to the Philippines.

"We had one meeting about hiring international teachers, but it was never discussed about going to the Philippines," Wells said. "I was just as surprised as (Crummy) was. I would think that we would have a policy or procedure in place to check on the people we are dealing with."

The personnel committee is scheduled to meet at 5 tonight at the Administrative Complex, prior to having an executive session with the full board and a full board meeting. On the agenda is an update on international recruiting.

"I think they should be held accountable for the companies they contract with," Crummy said.

Helms said Avenida paid all the expenses for him to fly to the Philippines and recruit teachers.

"At the end of my first year, I was told to terminate all of the teachers from the Philippines," Helms said. Two days later Oakland sent more officials to the Philippines to recruit more teachers.

If the school system kept the teachers on staff, then there would be no reason for school officials to receive a free trip and envelopes of cash, Helms said. Avenida's system encourages the school systems to let the teachers go quickly, which creates a revolving door and continual need to return to the Philippines.

Avenida dismissed Helms' charges, saying that he is a "disgruntled employee," but did not know why he is upset with her.

Helms, who has recruited in Russia, Spain and Germany, said the Filipino teachers were highly qualified, speaking three and four languages and many having published research.

"They can be the best teachers in the world, but in three years they go home," he said.

Helms explained that Avenida brings the teachers to America on a J visa, the same type of visa that Clayton County is using. He said that J visas are good for three years, but then the teachers must return to the Philippines. This helps create the "revolving door" for Avenida to continue collecting money from the teachers and for school systems to continue receiving free trips and envelops of money.

Linus Li, an auditor with MGT of America, which is conducting an independent investigation into the Oakland school system, confirmed that part of the investigation is focusing on international recruiting, including Avenida International.

Since the investigation is ongoing, Li could not give details regarding his investigation, but did say that MGT of America has spoken with Montoya about the FBI's investigation. Although both investigations involve Avenida International, they are separate investigations.

California's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team authorized MGT of America to investigate the Oakland school system.

Li said he couldn't confirm whether or not has spoken with Avenida, but Avenida said she has never spoken with Li or his company.

"I have never even heard of them," Avenida said. "To this day, they have not asked me, called me, written me."

Avenida said she networks at conferences and meetings throughout the country. Through her networking, she assesses the need of a school system and tries to match the system with the best teachers according to the system's needs.

"One of my priorities is to be sure that the teachers we bring in will meet the licensing of every state," Avenida said.

Filipino teachers pay her between $4,000 and $6,500 to help them find jobs in America, she said. In exchange, she arranges meetings between them and American school systems. She also provides immigration lawyers and assistance in helping the teachers relocate in America once a school system offers a job to a Filipino teacher.

"I do not enter into a financial contract with the school district," Avenida said. "The district do not pay me a penny."

Erdmanczyk said that the state Department of Education reviewed Clayton's special education last year. Of the 247 items the state reviewed, the DOE found four violations, including some special education teachers not being properly certified to teach special education.

He said the state accepted a proposal by Clayton County schools to increase recruiting efforts, including international recruiting, as a way to provide qualified special education teachers.

In America, Filipino teachers can make in one month what it takes a year for a teacher to make in the Philippines.