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Principal signed Filipino teachers to buy, sell makeup
March 14, 2010
The principal at the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship High School recruited teachers to sell cosmetics. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / March 10, 2010)
The principal of a Baltimore City high school recruited seven Filipino teachers on her staff to buy and resell thousands of dollars of Mary Kay cosmetics, a business arrangement the teachers entered reluctantly but felt would keep them in good standing with their boss.
Principal Janice Williams of the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship high school in West Baltimore sometimes went to the teachers' classrooms last school year to ask for their credit cards to purchase lipstick, perfume, foundation and eye makeup, according to three of the teachers, who said they never intended to use the products and were unable to resell most of them.
Williams, who is an independent sales director for Mary Kay, stood to gain financially from each transaction. Documents obtained from the school system under a Freedom of Information Act request show that she was the subject of an internal investigation last year, but it is unclear what, if any, action was taken against her. She has remained at her job at IBE.
The city school board's ethics code prohibits salaried employees from using "the prestige of their offices for their own personal gain or that of another." A violation of the rule is grounds for disciplinary action, including dismissal.
In addition, the city's school board rules state that "principals shall devote themselves exclusively to the work of the school during office hours."
Williams denied to The Baltimore Sun that she solicited teachers to sell Mary Kay, saying, "It absolutely did not happen."
"If you have information that I attempted to recruit any Filipino teachers, you are misinformed," she said, declining to comment further.
But the three Filipino teachers, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said they collectively bought more than $2,000 worth of cosmetics and provided documentation of the purchases to The Sun. The teachers said they did not want to purchase the products, and only agreed to act as Mary Kay salespeople because they believed it would put them in good favor with Williams.
"It is in our culture that if your boss asks you to do something, then you will do it," said Aileen Mercado, a Filipino teacher who is a Baltimore Teachers Union board member and has spoken with several teachers who bought the products. Seven of the 12 Filipino teachers at IBE last school year purchased Mary Kay, according to the teachers.
The city, which currently employs about 600 Filipino teachers, began hiring them five years ago when school districts were struggling to find certified teachers. The Philippines became a top source for teachers, because of its surplus of education majors and its English-speaking population. The teachers, some with years of experience, came here for better pay.
Vulnerable to exploitation
Across the nation, Filipino teachers have become victims of both the recruiters who brought them here and the failure of school systems to protect them, according to the American Federation of Teachers, which has begun a national campaign to expose some of the injustices.
"Filipino teachers are very vulnerable to pressure," Mercado said, because they must ask their principals to provide letters of support when their visas are renewed.
If they get an unfavorable performance review, their chances of remaining in the country could be hindered. "At the back of our minds, that visa thing is always hanging there," she said.
In an e-mail written to city schools CEO Andrés Alonso that was obtained by The Sun, another city principal expressed frustration in September over the school system's lack of action to discipline Williams.
"In their eyes nothing has been done as a result of their courage to expose the truth," Medfield Elementary School Principal Anthony Japzon, who is half-Filipino, wrote of several of the teachers who cooperated with the school system's legal department.
Several sources who worked with Williams said it was well known that she sold Mary Kay products because several years ago she drove a pink Mary Kay Cadillac. The Cadillac is a perk the company provides to its most successful salespeople, according to Crayton Webb, director of corporate communications for Mary Kay. Williams no longer has the car.
The Filipino teachers said Williams told them they could make good money selling the products because they could charge twice what they paid for them. But the teachers said they knew they would make no money because none of the people in their tight-knit community wanted to buy what they considered expensive cosmetics.
Williams is an independent sales director, according to Webb. Directors, he said, receive bonuses and commissions on the products that are purchased by the salespeople who work for them. Therefore, Williams would have benefited financially each time a purchase was made.
The three teachers said Williams recruited them in different ways. In one case, they went to a Mary Kay party at the principal's house; in another, they simply signed a document in the principal's office. They said when they signed up the first time, they put down $100.
"What my thinking was that night was, I will buy just one time," one teacher said. She said Williams didn't pressure her to purchase the products, but she felt it was in her best interest to do so.
But a few months later, the principal came to her and suggested that if she wanted to "maintain her status" as a Mary Kay sales consultant then she would have to make a $200 purchase, the teacher said. That continued, the teacher said, throughout the year. In total, she bought $600 worth of products.
A second teacher said she was sitting in her classroom writing a lesson plan one day when the principal came in and asked for a payment. She said she didn't have cash so she gave Williams her credit card so that she could make the purchases.
The third teacher said she spent about $1,000 that school year on Mary Kay products, most of which were either mailed back to the Philippines to relatives to try to sell or are still in her closet at home.
"Ms. Williams would call and e-mail teachers" to remind them to keep making purchases, a teacher said. "How can I refuse the principal?" one of the teachers said.
One teacher provided The Sun with copies of her bank statements showing more than $600 in Mary Kay purchases in November and December 2008 and May 2009. A second teacher provided statements showing payments to Mary Kay of almost $1,000.
They also provided copies of e-mails from Williams, which came from her Mary Kay e-mail address, asking them to contribute or thanking them for their contribution that returned them to "active status."
The Filipino teachers said they do not know any American teachers in the building who were recruited, but they can't be sure that they were not.
Word about the Mary Kay situation spread through the community of Filipino teachers, and some began questioning the propriety of Williams' alleged actions, the three teachers said.
According to documents provided by the school system under an FOIA request, Japzon intervened on behalf of the teachers and counseled them to cooperate with the system's legal department. The teachers said that five of them went to the legal department and were interviewed in detail in July about buying Mary Kay products.
In the e-mail Japzon wrote to Alonso on Sept. 9 in which he expressed concerns about the investigation, the principal went into some of the details about the case and said he would provide more if needed.
"I believe that these teachers did the right thing by cooperating with City Schools' legal department and now they are in a hostile environment and subject to retaliation," Japzon wrote to Alonso.
'Right will prevail'
Japzon told Alonso that he had assured the teachers that though principals in the Philippines probably would not have been disciplined, in the United States "right will prevail over stature and economic class."
"It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the overwhelming majority of our 500 Filipino teachers are familiar with this incident," he wrote. "They are waiting for our school system to do the right thing, as I know that it will under your leadership."
Alonso responded to Japzon the next day: "This matter, as you already know, is in the hands of the legal department. I expect it to be handled in a thorough and just manner."
The CEO wrote that he could not discuss a personnel issue but said that he was "sensitive to your sense of responsibility to a community" and that he wanted to know if there were specific evidence that the teachers were in a hostile environment.
A few hours later, according to e-mails obtained by The Sun, Alonso exchanged e-mails with Tammy Turner, the school system's in-house attorney. In the exchange, Turner said the investigation was complete and information had been sent to Jerome Jones, acting head of the school system'sHuman Relations Department. A meeting on the matter was set for the next day.
Alonso also asked to see a packet of information, then wrote, "I assume issue of principals targeting Filipino teachers is addressed." Turner replied, "Yes, sir."
Japzon declined to comment on his role in helping the Filipino teachers or on the details of the allegations.
Other e-mails from October show that Williams requested and was given the names of the teachers who had gone to the administration to report what they believed to be her improper behavior. The e-mails discuss a meeting that was planned with the principal, her supervisors and the teachers and it appears to have been a meeting that was called because of the investigation.
Because parts of the e-mails obtained by The Sun were redacted by the school system, it is unclear whether Williams was punished. Alonso would not comment.
"We consider this matter a personnel issue and our protocol is that we do not discuss a personnel issue," said Edie House, a spokeswoman for the school system.
In the corporate world, managers are discouraged from conducting business with employees, said Charles M. Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. While he wouldn't comment on the specific case, he said, "Most companies discourage that sort of action because it introduces something into the employee-employer relationship." He said it is "not a good practice."
Webb, the Mary Kay spokesman, said the company expects its salespeople to "hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. We take our reputation and the strength of our brand very seriously," he said. When the company receives firsthand complaints, it investigates, he said, adding that salespeople can return the products within a year for a 90 percent refund.
In the past year, the AFT, a national teachers union representing primarily urban teachers including those in Baltimore, has begun investigating how Filipino teachers are being taken advantage of in school systems across the country.
"The degree of exploitation and the methods of exploitation have varied around the country, but the number of examples is quite disturbing," said Shannon Lederer, assistant director of international affairs for the AFT.
While many of the teachers have been taken advantage of by international recruiting firms that charge $5,000 to $8,000 for their placement in a school district, the teachers have experienced problems with school systems as well, Lederer said.
Mercado, the local union representative, said she wanted the story about the Filipino teachers at IBE in Baltimore to become public so that principals would stop taking advantage of them. She said the teachers also need to learn to stand up for themselves.
"It is not right for the Filipino teachers to be pushed around. ... If you are experiencing something, then you have to speak up," she said.