Prince George’s schools suspend foreign hiring after being fined

Prince George’s County school officials have has suspended overseas recruitment as it prepares to battle the U.S. Labor Department over $5.9 million in penalties and fees assessed for shortchanging teachers hired from abroad.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said there will be no recruitment through the end of the year as the school system evaluates whether to continue hiring foreign teachers who specialize in high school math and science. For a decade, numerous school districts across the nation have also hired foreign teachers.

“Moving forward, we have to be looking at the implications of this solution,” Hite said.

The federal government imposed a $1.7 million penalty on the school system Monday for a “willful violation’’ of labor laws after concluding that it should have paid $4.2 million in processing and payment fees for 1,044 teachers who received temporary work visas, known as H-1Bs. Individual teachers paid those expenses, which exceeded $5,000, out of their own pocket.

On Tuesday, school officials expanded their defense, saying they didn’t encourage teachers to make those payments — and didn’t know teachers made them.

The vast majority of the county’s foreign teachers are from the Philippines. Many paid an agency to prepare and present their portfolios to the school district, and those processing fees were folded into the agency’s services, unbeknownst to the school district, Prince George’s officials said.

The school system has already started to reimburse teachers, paying them mandatory $500 anti-fraud fees as well as filing fees, which can be as much as $320. But they are unwilling to repay the teachers for optional services, such as $1,000 fees paid to recruitment agencies to speed visa processing.

The Labor Department, however, has held that using a recruitment agency is no excuse. The school district is the only entity that can be held responsible for overcharging teachers because it was the only entity that signed a contract with the Labor Department to obtain the work visas, it said.

Prince George’s says that about 957 of its current educators — a little more than 10 percent of the teaching staff — came here after obtaining H-1Bs. As the schools and the Labor Department tried to negotiate an agreement, schools told staff members that temporary teachers would not have their three-year visas renewed if they could not teach high school math and science and similar subjects for which there are shortages of qualified teachers.

Foreign teachers in areas where there are no shortages could be replaced by Americans, especially at a time when the district plans to lay off hundreds of teachers.

“We are the victims,’’ said Millet de Vera Panga, an elementary school teacher and board representative of the Pilipino Educators Network, which advocates for Filipino teachers in the county. “But we recognize that our school system is facing big budget problems right now, and we really hope that we can arrive at a decision beneficial to all.”

Panga, now a permanent U.S. resident, began working in Prince George’s in 2005. She was in the first wave of recruits from the Philippines as the Prince George’s schools hoped to avoid penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind law for not having enough “highly qualified” teachers.

School officials said that the Philippines had unique advantages: There, teachers spoke English and already met tough standards.

Wages in the United States were higher, allowing them to lure those who sought a better life.

Recruiting agencies marketed the teachers to struggling school districts from Baltimore to East Baton Rouge. Teachers were also hired from Chile, India and Jamaica, among other countries. Many school districts have been happy with the results.

Prince George’s hired an unusually large number of temporary workers. Its current teaching staff hovers around 9,000. Of those, 62 foreign teachers were hired in 2002 and 111 in 2003. The peak was in 2007, when 249 were hired. Those numbers have trailed off significantly since then because of the economic downtown — just one H-1B teacher was sponsored in the county last year.

When the number of teachers hired increased, so did the number of federal investigations. The Labor Department has closed 17 similar cases since 2005. But this particular case dwarfs any of the others. The second-largest case involved New Designs Charter School in Los Angeles, costing 194,318 to 12 visa-holders.

Last year, the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 350 Filipino teachers in Louisiana, accusing two labor contractors of cheating the guest workers out of money they were owed. Some of the teachers worked for East Baton Rouge schools, which were also named as a defendant in the case.

Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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