San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Scandal Erupts over Teachers

One week into the 2007 school year, a scandal surrounding the appointment of teachers and other personnel mired the Public Education Ministry (MEP), the National Liberation Party (PLN) and several legislators in allegations of favoritism. The scandal has so far resulted in the resignation of two high-level ministry officials, as well as internal and external investigations.

The accusations are only one of the problems facing Public Education Minister Leonardo Garnier. Though President Oscar Arias says improving public education is one of his top priorities and has launched initiatives to increase spending and coverage, when school began Feb. 7, bureaucratic errors meant that an estimated 4,000 teachers didn’t show up for class because they weren’t properly notified or assigned.

At least one union leader has asked the government to declare a state of emergency because of the chaos.

When The Tico Times visited the ministry’s Personnel Department in downtown San José Tuesday, teachers interviewed at random from the hundreds standing in line presented cases of two or three teachers named to the same post, or one teacher given two jobs in different parts of the country, or schools missing as much as a third of the staff.

Garnier, in a somewhat bizarre turn of events, has claimed that an unnamed foe caused some of the problems on purpose in an attempt to sabotage his organization.

“The (errors) that were happening… they’re too numerous, all together, to think that this is only ineptitude,” he told reporters gathered at the Rincón Grande School in western San José last week for the official kickoff of the year. “I think there are people with an interest in causing problems with the beginning of the school year.”

Following reports of undue influence on staff appointments by Liberation Party members, Personnel Department Director Alvaro Alpízar resigned Tuesday.His secondin-command, Edwin Hernández, also resigned at Garnier’s request, the minister explained Wednesday following Arias’ weekly Cabinet meeting.

“Things weren’t working the way they’re supposed to work,” Garnier said of the department, adding that the Comptroller General’s Office has agreed to conduct a study of the ministry’s hiring practices as a result of the irregularities. The ministry is also conducting an internal audit and investigation of what Garnier says looks like sabotage. Meanwhile, the problems have meant days of lost classroom time for teachers and students.

Educator Karla Arguedas, waiting patiently on a metal bench at the Personnel Department, told The Tico Times that at the Special Education School of Alajuela, where she teaches, approximately one-third of the staff never arrived, and because of this many parents are choosing to keep their kids at home.

It’s not a new situation, but teachers told The Tico Times it’s certainly deteriorated this year.

“Worse? Whooo!” said Arguedas, waving one hand above her head in a you-can’teven-imagine gesture.

José Antonio Barquero, president of the National Educators’ Association (ANDE), the union leader who asked Arias and Garnier to declare a state of emergency Wednesday, had some scathing words for a system that makes trained teachers wait in line for their jobs.

“There are educators begging for posts, when they’re professionals,” he said.

A Clunky System

In Costa Rica, one of the only countries in Latin America where all teacher placement decisions are made by central, not regional, authorities, MEP’s Personnel Department works with the Civil Service to name teachers, then notifies them by telegram.

This year, as in 2006 and previous years, delayed telegrams, as well as cases where multiple candidates were given the same job, meant that in some schools, no one showed up for a post, while in others, three people arrived for the same one.Miscommunication between local and central authorities about schools’ enrollment and needs cause additional problems.

For example, at the Personnel Department on Tuesday, art teacher Jorge Leitón waited in line next to Juan Carlos Céspedes, both from Central Valley high schools; Céspedes’ school has too many teachers, sending the young science teacher to MEP to learn whether he’ll be reassigned, while Leitón’s school is missing 12.

Vanessa Gamboa, a Spanish teacher, worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. this week because the ministry gave her not one job, but two – one on the Caribbean slope, and another at a night school in the Central Valley – and hasn’t yet given her permission to quit one, despite the hours she’s spent pleading her case at various administrative offices during her afternoon break.

A new Internet application form introduced this year complicated the situation, according to agriculture teacher Francisco Garro. The form accidentally registered him for a post in the southern San José suburb of Desamparados, though he lives in the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba.

Resolving these errors takes time and patience, teachers say. Both Garro and Gamboa said that ministry officials had sent them back and forth to schools and regional offices in an attempt to get “permission” to give up the jobs they were mistakenly assigned.

Also, educators with incorrect placements might get paid for jobs they’re not doing. Garnier said the ministry’s computer system isn’t compatible with the Finance Ministry’s – information must be printed out and transferred by hand from one system to the other so teachers can be paid, slowing down reaction time to changes.

According to Garnier, a mysterious theft of computers and hard drives containing teacher-hiring information from the Civil Service Jan. 4 delayed the process still further.

Ever since that theft, Garnier has stated publicly that someone is trying to make the ministry look bad. While Gilberth Díaz, president of the Costa Rican Education Workers’ Union (SEC), initially derided these claims and implied that the government itself may have organized the robbery to affect teachers, he told The Tico Times this week he now agrees that someone is sabotaging Garnier.

“It’s an internal fight… to cut off the minister’s head,” Díaz said, alleging that disagreements between members of the Liberation Party working within the ministry have created a group of officials seeking to oust Garnier and replace him with a minister more to their liking. “It worries me, because the people affected are the students.”

Garnier has said he will not release further details about the alleged sabotage until he ministry completes an internal investigation.

Too Many Cooks?

Apparently, all the confusion may have inspired politicians to get a little too involved in the teacher selection process.

The daily La Nación reported Wednesday that Néstor Jiménez, a Liberation campaign leader in Puriscal, southwest of San José, asked the Education Ministry to create 21 positions for people who had worked on Arias’ campaign. The day before, La Nación reported that Liberation legislator Olivier Jiménez had coordinated teacher placement in the Southern Zone through one of his advisors.

Union leader Díaz said it’s up to Garnier to address this problem.

“The Personnel Department… names the people it’s told to name,” he told The Tico Times. “The minister himself should have character and make (officials) show respect.”

Teachers interviewed by The Tico Times last year described this alleged corruption as their biggest complaint about teacher placement, saying that the ministry often ignores the experience-based point system used to determine who gets their top choice (TT, July 21, 2006). Asked about this problem last week, Garnier said it’s fine for someone to speak out in favor of a certain candidate, but “we must avoid that recommendations become an official channel for placements.”

Possible Solutions

Sabotage or not, all parties agree the system must be changed. One short-term solution under way, Garnier said, is overhauling the ministry’s computer system to make it compatible with the Finance Ministry’s to eliminate some of the payment delays common in recent years. MEP Vice-Minister Silvia Víquez also told the daily La Nación Wednesday that the ministry will convert one-year teacher placements, or plazas interinas, into permanent posts so educators don’t have to reapply each year.

Long-term plans include decentralizing the hiring process and giving regional authorities more power – an idea that principal María Francisco Reyes, of Rincón Grande, said she’d welcome.

“He wants to give us (hiring) authority,” she said of Garnier as she stood outside a classroom at her school Feb. 7, when four of her assigned primary teachers failed to show up because of problems with the system. The system ties the minister’s hands, she went on, adding that her students are in particular need of good teachers, given that for the 40% of them that won’t go on to high school, this is the only education they’ll receive. (Only 33% of Costa Ricans graduate from high school.).

Union leader Díaz also applauded decentralization, saying the ministry should put  hiring power in the hands of the regional administrative offices.

When The Tico Times asked Barquero, of ANDE, how much time would be needed for these “long-term” changes, he snapped that they should be short-term.

“It’s not complicated, and needs to be immediate,” he said.


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