Ghost teachers,’ phantom schools haunt education reforms in ARMM

Last of three parts

LAWYER FRANCES Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi talks to distraught “dead” teachers all the time, but she makes it a point to crack jokes when they call her on her cell phone at night.

“I appeal to them, please don’t call me at night,” she says. “I’m afraid of you, you’re already dead.”

Guiani-Sayadi is the Solicitor General of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). She has been given the horrendous task of putting order to the chaotic records of teaching personnel in the ARMM.

Perhaps macabre humor helps lighten the stress, since part of her assignment is talking to teachers who have been reported and certified dead, and for whom burial and insurance money had been collected.

So far the graveyard has yielded no corpses — at least not those of the teachers — but further investigations have unearthed tons of forged paperwork at all levels of the bureaucracy that are blamed on what some call “golden hands.”

A shortage in teachers has been cited as one of the reasons why the country’s education indicators have plummeted and why the Philippines is unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. The lack of teachers, in turn, is due in part to the fact that only a fraction of the estimated half a million who enroll in education courses each year eventually graduate and pass the licensure examinations. In 2007, only 28 percent of over 124,000 who took the licensure exam passed.

For the past two decades, teachers have also been leaving the country in droves to work overseas — sometimes even as nannies.

IN ARMM, the shortage in educators has been exacerbated by decades of corruption, abuse, and inefficiency within the Department of Education (DepEd) and the region’s officialdom. [contributed photo]

Teaching jobs for sale

In ARMM, which comprises eight provinces down south, the shortage in educators has been exacerbated by what many there say have been decades of corruption, abuse, and inefficiency within the Department of Education (DepEd) and the region’s officialdom. Indeed, it is probably difficult to find takers there for a profession that not only entails long hours, but has also become known for delayed salaries and benefits that go missing.

DepEd’s Basic Education Information System (BEIS) data show that from 2003 to 2005, ARMM was home to 548,766 elementary school pupils and 13,701 locally hired teachers. The teacher-student ratio in the region was at the time estimated at 1:42. Excluding ARMM, the teacher-student ratio for the whole of Mindanao was 1:37.

But teaching has become a tainted profession in ARMM. National and local officials say, too, that some of the very people who are supposed to teach children moral values along with the ABCs have bribed their way into teaching posts and then “subcontract” their jobs.

To be fair, bribes in exchange for teaching positions is nothing new to the education department. Former DepEd Undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz admits that the practice of education officials demanding from a prospective teacher his or her salary for the first two months on the job is not unheard of. What is news to him is the idea of a teacher hiring someone else to handle a class.

“I’ve never seen that at the national level,” Luz says.

Many legitimate educators in ARMM say that several practices of their pseudo colleagues are unique to the region. They also say they have been complaining for years for local and national leaders to look into their plight.

Some have even called on ARMM Governor Zaldy Uy Ampatuan to resign if he fails to act on their problems. Last December, local officials finally urged President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to help them look into the teachers’ complaints.

Critical concerns

Among those confirmed as critical concerns by initial investigation is a fund mess at DepEd ARMM: unremitted teacher contributions and loan payments to the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS).

In fact, the GSIS refused to process loans and benefits to ARMM teachers from 1997 to 2003, after failing to receive contributions from the region. Since 2004, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has resorted to withholding GSIS contributions and directly remitting it to the agency. But up to now, records of years past remain in disarray, preventing scores of ARMM teachers from obtaining a loan, among other things.

“We’re not talking of millions, we’re talking of a billion pesos here, for GSIS alone, for the whole of ARMM,” says Guiani-Sayadi.

She says there is no exact figure of how many teachers in the ARMM have been victimized by the GSIS-DepEd mess. But she laments that so many teachers who have left the service have yet to receive their benefits. “Some have died without receiving their retirement pay,” she says.

The problem is ARMM’s alone, as DepEd ARMM is autonomous. The national DepEd office merely acts as conduit in giving schools in the region their share of textbooks and chairs.

In the meantime, Guiani-Sayadi says the Philippine Public School Teachers Association (PPSTA) has also discovered that insurance and death benefits of some 50 teachers have been claimed and collected even though these educators are still living — and still at work in schools.

Borrowed students

Observers and ARMM insiders alike say this has its roots in the late ‘90s, during the term of then ARMM Governor Nur Misuari. The current administration of Governor Ampatuan came to power only in September 2005. In truth, before he could even warm his seat, Ampatuan faced a major crisis in DepEd ARMM: many of the region’s teachers had failed to get their pay as DepEd funds had gone missing. Malacañang had to approve a bailout package, a special grant to cover the P200-million fund needed for teachers’ salaries a year later.

MUSLIM school children at a madrasa. [contributed photo]

Before 2005 ended, Ampatuan also had to create a task force to look into reports of phantom schools and ghost teachers through ARMM Department Order Number 1. Last November, Ampatuan himself reported in his second State of the Region Address: “We have identified a number of schools (that) are not existing but functional only according to records.”

Guiani-Sayadi says the inventory has yielded over 10 phantom schools, mostly in Lanao del Sur. Interestingly, it also unearthed “mobile schools” and “borrowed students,” practices resorted to by ingenious division officials to enliven ghost schools. The schemes call for students from one barangay to go to another to make it appear to inspection teams that classes exist in regionally funded schools.

The issue has been the subject of congressional hearings and a special report by the Commission on Audit. To date, however, no ARMM official has been prosecuted, much less put behind bars, even for the glaring crime of siphoning off the teachers’ remittances to the GSIS.

Instead, it is the current crop of officials who must sift through the records and propose corrective measures, which may take years to pay and may entail another bailout by the national government.

‘Missing’ teachers’

So far, it is the teachers who are being made to bear the burden of making up for their missing contributions, so that they can be considered “good enough” to take out a loan from the GSIS and other financing institutions.

Yet if there are missing remittances, there are also “missing” teachers. Guiani-Sayadi says field checks have yielded no breathing individual for some teaching items that had been reported as filled and for which salaries had been collected regularly. There have also been cases of retired or dead teachers who continued to be paid — until an audit put a stop to it.

Guiani-Sayadi also tells of an elderly woman who came to collect her teacher-daughter’s salary. There was something about the woman that pricked Guiani-Sayadi’s curiosity, though, and a thorough check of the daughter’s records was conducted. After a doublecheck out on field, it was confirmed that the daughter was no longer teaching — and had been working overseas for years.

As Guiani-Sayadi describes it, pay collection time at ARMM can be very interesting. She recalls one woman who showed up in a burqa, which reveals only the eyes of the wearer. She says she told the person who was in charge of the payroll, “Let her talk, listen to her voice.” Her advice was heeded, and the woman was discovered to have already collected her pay.

Yet as if all these were not enough, there have also been approved teaching items that were made to appear to have been granted to two, and even up to as many as nine, teachers. Guiani-Sayadi theorizes that some unscrupulous individuals at DepEd had taken advantage of the mess in the personnel files, and had forged documents to collect the salaries of the “excess” teachers. That is assuming, of course, that at least one teacher actually occupied the position.

ARMM education department insiders say this setup should not be confused with the “subcontracted” teachers, or those who had been hired by the real post occupants. As the insiders tell it, those who have the cheek to do this are usually the teachers who got their posts by bribing DepEd officials. These teachers, they say, see no reason to show up in school, except when collecting their pay. But they do hire someone else to teach in their stead, whom they pay a fraction of their salary while they pocket the difference.

‘Organized crime’

An ARMM official who declines to be named says the reasoning of these teachers goes like this: “Binayaran ko na noon ang puwesto ko, bakit pa ako papasok (I have paid for my position, why do I have to work)?”

Another former teacher in Maguindanao says, “Those who bought their positions cannot be forced to teach.”

Observers and educators in the region say the practice — which is not exactly uncommon — has gone unchecked because DepEd officials rarely conduct surprise visits. Oftentimes, visits are announced beforehand because, says one educator, “of security concerns.” Unfortunately, this also allows the misbehaving teachers to prepare and cover their tracks.

Guiani-Sayadi has taken to calling the various scams at DepEd ARMM as “an organized crime.” She asks, “How can this happen without the connivance of officials in the past? Who signed the certifications?”

The so-called “golden hands” that are masters in forging documents and signatures, though, are at work even outside of the education department. At least one former midlevel education supervisor in the ARMM province of Maguindanao says she has encountered several teachers whose school records and eligibility papers were dubious.

It’s no wonder that Guiani-Sayadi says her job has made her toughen up. A fast-talking, no-nonsense woman, she points to her heart and says, “You have to be strong here. If they start crying, will you tolerate it, knowing it’s wrong?”

At the very least, some local governments have started admitting their own education systems need to be fixed.

Revisiting records

Maguindanao provincial administrator Norie Unas, for instance, acknowledges his province has its share of “ghost teachers,” although he says it’s a legacy of past governments. “We had to revisit our records, reconcile them with what’s on the ground, as well as the records of the DepEd ARMM and DepEd national,” he says.

At the regional level, Ampatuan has mandated that each Cabinet meeting begin with a report on remittances by each department head.

Guiani-Sayadi says this is the kind of attitude the region needs. She says local officials have to scrutinize decades-old records to be able to separate chaff from the grain.

She also recommends a healthy dose of transparency. She says the forgery should be reported and openly discussed, so that the records can be corrected and can start reflecting fact instead of fiction.

The ARMM solicitor general says as well that town officials and community leaders should activate their local school boards and involve themselves in the work of DepEd supervisors in their area.

“This (problem) is hard to solve,” says Guiani-Sayadi. “You need committed people, who care for the community. And that’s paramount over anything else.”

Putting the community first will undoubtedly help ease the region’s problems. After all, genuine concern for one’s community, unlike paperwork, cannot be faked even by golden hands.