Board members demand answers

By Greg Gelpi

School officials are asking why the school system has been working with a company under investigation by the FBI.

The Clayton County Board of Education Personnel Committee discussed the school system's international recruiting efforts Monday

Two school officials recruited special education teachers in the Philippines using Avenida International. The company is under investigation by the state of California and the FBI, according to Thomas Henry, the chief executive officer of California's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. The agency authorized an investigation into the company in connection to a larger investigation of the Oakland, Calif., school system.

Coordinator of Special Education Tom Erdmanczyk said that he and Mount Zion High School Principal Don Stout found 14 teachers "highly qualified" after rigorous questioning, but that he didn't question Ligaya Avenida, the president of Avenida International prior to the trip. He spoke with two of her references, but didn't look any further.

"While I did not look into Avenida International specifically, I did talk to school systems that did recruit with Avenida International," Erdmanczyk said.

Avenida said she has done nothing illegal and said she doesn't know of any investigations.

Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Ed Scott said he conducted a telephone survey Monday and found that most metro Atlanta school systems recruit internationally, but that none use Avenida International, a company based in California.

The school system turned to international recruiting to address a teacher shortage, he said. The state doesn't produce enough teachers, particularly special education teachers, to fill the state's vacancies.

Linus Li of MGT of America, the company investigating the Oakland Unified School District in California, confirmed that the FBI is investigating the company, as did Mike Helms a former Oakland school human resources official.

MGT of America is investigating the Oakland school system's foreign recruiting in connection to a larger investigation involving its bankruptcy.

Helms, who went to the Philippines in 2001 to recruit, said he was offered money in an envelope as a "finder's fee."

Avenida said that she has never done that and said she knows nothing of any investigations.

"That may be their problem," Stout said of the FBI investigation. "We didn't pay Avenida International anything, and we have 14 very good teachers."

Two of the teachers have law degrees and all of them speak fluent English and have at least three years' experience in special education, he said.

"I can only say that this was one of the most excellent recruiting trips I've been on," Erdmanczyk said.

Board member Carol Kellam asked if the FBI would find anything that would prevent the teachers from joining the Clayton school system or that would harm the system.

"We have not had an opportunity to begin delving into this," Scott said. "Up until this time, there has not been enough time to probe into the allegations."

Funding for the trip, which cost more than $7,000, came from a grant, Erdmanczyk said. The grant was intended for covering the "excess costs" of educating special education students.

"Our cost was the cost of the trip," he said.

Avenida will reimburse the school system if the system hires 10 or more teachers from the trip, she said.

The teachers will be brought over on J visas, three-year visas issued for cultural exchanges. The teachers, therefore, will have to return in three years if they are unable to get a new visa.

Board Chairwoman Nedra Ware asked where that would leave a school system already needing special education teachers in three years.

"I guess I'm just concerned that we train them and then they go home," Ware said.

She questioned why more efforts weren't put into recruiting teachers in America.

Scott said the system has a number of programs to recruit in Georgia and throughout the country and that efforts to recruit domestically are increasing.