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Due diligence could prevent using unethical contractors

It looks as though all will end well for both Caddo Parish schools and Filipino teachers, as their visa problems not of their own doing seem to be getting resolved. But more care on the part of the district would have meant this never had to happen in the first place.

While unions by their nature to society are more destructive than constructive institutions, at least the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and its national parent followed through on complaints by the immigrant teachers. Yet besides the question of whether anything illegal occurred, larger policy questions for the likes of the Caddo School District are why due diligence appeared not to have been performed and what to do about it now.

Beginning in 2007, a couple of Louisiana districts contracted with Universal Placement International, Inc. to provide teachers from The Philippines for areas in which seemed to have a shortage of domestic applicants. Caddo and some others also have done so since the 2008 school year. The company took care of all the legal work and presented teachers most of whom have done a satisfactory job, if not better.

However, earlier this month the LFT on behalf of these foreign nationals began lodging complaints with the state about the treatment of the teachers by the company. The allegations claimed the company relative to the hires was extortionist, usurious, exploitative, and practiced intimidation. The company had its signees pay big upfront costs, 20 percent of their expected salaries garnished, charged absurdly high interest rates on money borrowed to meet these costs, made them live in cramped quarters for above-market rents, and made threats not to speak of these things to anybody, or even to socialize with anybody outside their own circle, it is charged.

To some degree the union and editorialists are accurate in denouncing these arrangements. However, the sentiment represented by remarks Caddo School Board member Barry Rachal made also is true: the Filipinos consented to these conditions. The question then becomes whether there were deceptive practices involved and if they led to the breaking of any Louisiana or federal laws.

At least two deceptive practices, by the testimony of the teachers, appear to have occurred. For one, more were often hired than for actual places available in a designated school system. As it worked out, eventually all who immigrated got jobs whether in delayed fashion or with other districts, but this may technically have been illegal under federal law. Yet violating Philippine law, according to a group of teachers circulating an Internet petition to redress grievances, was an additional placement charge as part of contracts presented to them and signed only upon entry into the U.S. that was premature and in excess of that allowed. The firm also may have violated a law stating only an applicant or district but not both could be charged in the case of the Recovery School District (Caddo got a “donation” of a trip for three staffers to vet the applicants in The Philippines).

The problem is, these kinds of things may not be actionable under domestic laws, including the issue of having a license to practice in Louisiana since in this case it is unclear whether it needed one. It is possible, if threats were made against the teachers speaking out, that might run afoul of state or federal law, but otherwise the teachers may just have to gut out a bad deal without any American government assistance.

Regardless of a possible lack of legal solutions, the political solution that can be pursued by Caddo is to stop doing business with the firm and to involve itself to reduce potential exploitative instruments, such as arranging for visa renewals (under the program the teachers utilized, typically visas are issued for three years but the company did them for one and, the teachers claim, uses non-renewal as a bargaining chip to intimidate). While desirable, such measures now only close the barn door after the horse got out.

More concern should focus on how this firm got picked and was allowed to continue again this year, the district said on recommendation from other districts, because there were a number of red flags about it from easily accessible public information:

  • The company’s owner, Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro of Filipina background, was convicted earlier in the decade of a felonious activities dealing with business transactions in California and New Jersey; her brother runs the operations in The Philippines

  • In 2006, concerns about the Navarro were raised and reported on in Pasadena, over a year before the first teachers arrived in Louisiana

  • The Recovery School District, which had started the hiring in 2007, dropped the firm after the first year out of suspicion of its activities, before Caddo made the decision to go with it; Caddo claims it asked around about the firm so why didn’t query its former superintendent Ollie Tyler who had signed off on contracts with the company?

  • After they had started in Caddo, almost a year ago the disgruntled teachers began the petition and news stories appeared internationally about it

  • Scattered reports in the last year indicated the practice of signing up too many was occurring

    These should have alerted Caddo officials never to have used this sketchy outfit, or at least to have stopped after this past year. In addition, the questions of board members Charlotte Crawley and Tammy Phelps should have inspired some checking that apparently never occurred and was never followed up by district staff, those two members, nor anybody else on the board. One hopes critical thinking didn’t go out the window because of the offer to provide the district the placement services not only for free, but even at the expense of the company. A review of procedures on this subject, as promised by the district, is incredibly overdue, but acquisition of common sense on these matters is even more imperative -- an approach other districts in the state need to employ as well.

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