The Republic of Turkey Wants the State of Texas to Investigate Gulen Charter Schools

In October 2015, the Republic of Turkey retained the international law firm, Amsterdam and Partners, to investigate the global activities of Pennsylvania resident, the mysterious Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whose network of followers happen to operate over 100 US charter schools.

fethullah gulen 2

Fethullah Gulen

On May 19, 2016, the Texas Tribune reported that Amsterdam and Partners planned to file a complaint with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) regarding alleged illegal operation of one specific Gulen-run charter school network, Harmony Schools.

Here is the text of that 32-page complaint, dated May 26, 2016.

And here are some powerful excerpts supporting the need for TEA intervention (citations removed for ease of reading):

This brief in support of the complaint against Cosmos Foundation, Inc., d/b/a Harmony Public Schools, (collectively “Harmony”) is submitted to the Texas Education Agency (“TEA”) with a request for a comprehensive investigation and sanctions as appropriate. … Though Harmony has been the subject of federal and state investigations in the last five years, each has been limited in scope and none has focused on Harmony’s employment, procurement, or operational practices. Though Harmony has been the subject of federal and state investigations in the last five years, each has been limited in scope and none has focused on Harmony’s employment, procurement, or operational practices. …

The need for a thorough TEA investigation of Harmony is even more pressing given Harmony’s aggressive growth plans. Taking advantage of Texas’ permissive replication rules, Harmony is rapidly expanding throughout the State by opening new campuses with limited state involvement or oversight. With forty-six campuses already, Harmony is poised to open up to fifteen new campuses over the next two school years serving an estimated additional 10,000 students. These expansions, if allowed to proceed, will cost Texas millions of taxpayer dollars per campus. With documented evidence of employment discrimination, self-dealing, violation of procurement laws, and concerning connections to a confederation of charter schools and charter school networks across the United States and world, Harmony’s operations in the state call for a comprehensive investigation immediately. …

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on national origin and gender, yet Harmony systematically favors individuals of Turkish nationality in hiring and job assignment. and men 12 A plain review of Harmony’s employment data submitted to the TEA shows that Harmony discriminates 1) in the recruiting and hiring of Turkish teachers with no American teaching experience or credentialing at the expense of qualified American teachers; and 2) in the hiring and promotion of almost exclusively Turkish men to leadership positions throughout the Harmony network. This is particularly egregious behavior since Harmony has already been successfully sued by former employees for employment discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin. …

An H-1B visa is a special visa intended to be used for placing a foreign individual in a U.S. job that cannot be staffed with U.S. citizens. Harmony uses the H-1B visa process extensively, claiming it cannot find enough qualified teachers in Texas to teach its STEM curriculum and instead spends taxpayer dollars to source an extraordinary number of teachers from other countries, primarily Turkey. From 2013-2015, Harmony filed a remarkable 780 visa applications for a wide range of employment positions. In 2015 and 2016, Harmony sponsored more H-1B visas than any other elementary or secondary entity in the U.S. The number of visa applications sponsored by Harmony is especially abnormal considering the small size of Harmony’s workforce. For the 2014-2015 school year, Harmony employed approximately 2,600 personnel. By contrast, Baltimore City Public Schools—which sponsored the second highest number of H-1B visas among elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. in 2015—employs over 11,200 full-time staff. The use of H-1B visas to source employees is not new to Harmony in recent years, either. From 2001-2012, Harmony filed 2,500 H-1B applications, with an astonishing total of 3,280 applications from 2001-2015.

Harmony’s stated rationale that it cannot find qualified teachers within Texas to teach its STEM curriculum is weakened when examining the positions hired for through the H-1B visa process. Harmony positions staffed by H-1B visa employees include Physical Education teachers, English teachers, Fine Arts teachers, legal counsel, budget accountants, human resources managers, area superintendents, counselors, librarians, and assistant principals, for example. In fact, a minimum of 42% of Harmony’s Turkish teachers do not teach either math or science. …

The Cosmos Foundation, the governing board of Harmony Public Schools (hereinafter the “Cosmos Board”), has been dominated by a male Turkish super-majority since its inception. …

That Harmony has an illegal preference for Turkish nationals is an obvious inference from its excessive and improper use of H-1B visa process. Yet, Harmony’s overwhelming preference for Turkish nationals becomes even clearer upon analyzing Harmony’s teacher employment data. …

In addition to Harmony’s unlawful hiring preference for Turkish teachers, Turkish teachers are paid more on average annually than non-Turkish teachers. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of pay disparities between Turkish and non-Turkish teachers with similar years of experience and degrees and who teach similar subjects.

For example:

• In Austin, there are two special education teachers at Harmony schools each with master’s degrees and six years’ experience, yet the Turkish teacher is paid at a rate of $18,000 more than the non-Turkish teacher.36

• At Harmony School of Advancement – Houston, there are two science teachers with the same qualifications—a bachelor’s degree and four years’ experience. The Turkish male teacher is paid at a rate of $65,700 while his non-Turkish female counterpart is paid at a rate of $51,600—a difference of $14,100. In addition, a male Turkish special education teacher in Houston with a Master’s degree and 8 years’ experience is paid at a rate of $19,550 more than the non-Turkish teacher. 37

• At the Houston Science Academy, a male Turkish teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and three years’ experience teaching “Other” subjects is paid $51,000, while a female nonTurkish teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and three years’ experience teaching English Language Arts is paid $47,900 – a disparity of $3,100. In addition, a female teacher at the same school with a Master’s degree and two years’ experience teaching “Other” subjects and Fine Arts is paid $46,600, a disparity of $4,400.

• At the Harmony Science Academy in El Paso, a male Turkish science teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and four years’ experience is paid $63,700 annually. A female nonTurkish teacher who teaches science and CTE subject areas has a Bachelor’s degree and five years’ experience and is paid $50,500 annually, $13,200 less than the Turkish teacher.

• At the Harmony Science Academy – West Houston, a male Turkish teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and no experience, who teaches English Language Arts and “other”, is paid $56,875 annually. At the same school, a female non-Turkish teacher, who has one year of experience and teaches English Language Arts, “other”, and Social Studies is paid $47,000 annually, a disparity of $9,875.

• At the school of Innovation in Fort Worth, a male Turkish teacher, with a master’s degree and thirteen years of experience, teaching “other” subjects, makes $72,000 annually. At a different school, but in the same district, a female, non-Turkish teacher with thirteen years of experience and a master’s degree, who is teaching “other” subjects”, makes $55,000 annually, a disparity of $17,000.

Again, differential in pay based on preference for national origin and/or gender is per se employment discrimination prohibited by federal law. These figures and inferences were drawn from data in the public record and demonstrate that on its face, Harmony appears to discriminate based on national origin. Harmony was required as part of a consent decree and settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 to put into place policies, training, and practices to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin. However, it is evident from this preliminary review of Harmony’s most recent employment data that Harmony continues to overpay Turkish males over all other backgrounds, notably the same gender and national origin of the Harmony board and charter holder. …

Unsurprisingly, Harmony also favors Turkish nationals for leadership positions and, in most cases, Turkish men. The Turkish-run Cosmos Board’s favoritism for individuals with the same national origin is displayed in its recruiting, hiring, and promotion of Turkish individuals. The Cosmos Board, also male-dominated, displays its preference for Turkish men specifically by unlawfully reserving leadership positions almost exclusively for Turkish men. Turkish men in leadership positions include: Harmony’s CEO, all eight Harmony executive officers, all six cluster superintendents, and 72% of campus principals. All five members of the Cosmos Board Finance Committee are Turkish. Additionally, 79% of Harmony’s counselors, 42% of business managers, 50% of Human Resources personnel, and 76% of other non-instructional “District personnel” are Turkish. This illegal preference is not new—if TEA investigates Harmony’s distribution of leadership roles, it will find that Turkish men have been in control of this organization from its inception. This is not by accident, nor is it legal. …

Harmony repeatedly selects vendors owned or operated by individuals of the same preferred national origin (Turkish) as the Cosmos governing board. Many of these individuals were also formerly employed by Harmony before starting these vendor companies and have other overlapping ties with current Harmony employees and leadership. Furthermore, Harmony appears to share land and resources with some of its highest paid affiliated Turkish vendors. All of these facts provide strong circumstantial evidence that Harmony may be violating state and federal laws related to competitive bidding, conflict of interest, and nepotism prohibitions and warrants the TEA to investigate Harmony’s procurement practices closely.

From a review of Harmony’s publicly available IRS 990 forms between 2004-2014 which list the top five paid contractors each year, 61% of those contractors are Turkish-owned and operated. Of the $202,024,228 of state and federal funds paid out to Harmony’s top fifty-four contractors over that same period of time, $152,770,870 went to the Turkish-owned and operated businesses, or 76%. More information is needed about the additional contracts of $100,000 and over that Harmony has executed. There were 124 additional contracts issued in 2014 alone, but they are not publically available. Interestingly, the Cosmos Board Finance Committee is run by five individuals—all Turkish—and at least one bid proposal in 2014, and likely others, was reviewed by an all Turkish internal review committee.

And there is much more, too much to include in this post, such as specifics regarding the cozy, profitable network of Turkish-operated businesses and school employees profiting handsomely off of American taxpayer money; specifics on the operation of and interconnections between Harmony and other Turkish-dominated schools in Oklahoma, Ohio, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Still, a couple more must-read excerpts, including reference to the Gulen-network money dump into the pockets of American politicians:

Like all charter networks and businesses operating within the Gülen organization, Harmony and its affiliates regularly donate to state and federal politicians on both sides of the aisle. In fact, Gülen himself reportedly stated in a Turkish newspaper that his followers must donate to their local politicians to gain admittance to his secretive compound in rural Pennsylvania to visit him, though Gülen later denied making the remark. These giving campaigns are well-timed. In the 2012 election cycle, Harmony’s state political contributions sky-rocketed. Harmony and its affiliates fit this pattern through a high degree of activity toward influencing state and federal policy, legislation, and general treatment for their business model through institutionalized giving. A search of the Texas Tribune Campaign Finance website underscores the extent of political contributions by this network of inter-related Turkish individuals and businesses. This increase in donations followed the 2011 call to audit Harmony’s procurement practices by the Texas House Government Investigations and Ethics Committee. There is no record that the procurement audit was ever conducted, however, and it was not included in the House interim charges for the 82nd Legislature.

And, finally, jumping to the conclusion of the complaint:

Notably, all of the information gathered in this complaint is in the public record or available through public record requests. While we have made several legitimate requests for open records from Harmony and its schools, we have been continuously denied access to any and all of the information we have requested. Additionally, we have experienced the following issues in the course of our research:

– Harmony does not post basic documents online that should be publically available, and in some cases, retracts documents that have been previously available. For example:

– Minutes from the Harmony Public Schools Board meetings are not available online. We know they exist because approval of Board minutes is an item on Board agendas (which are posted online).

– Minutes from the Harmony Public Schools Committee meetings are not available online. Again, we know they exist because approval appears on Board agendas.

– Importantly, while the agenda for meetings of the Academic and Facility and Construction Committees are available online, the agendas for the Finance Committee meetings, which were available online until early May, are no longer posted. The link for the agenda of each meeting now says “this link appears to be broken.”

– Unlike other public organizations (TEA, AISD, etc), Harmony does not make the names or contact information of employees at the campus or district level available online or in any other document. This is an issue for parents that might want to contact a district superintendent or other Harmony official directly if facing a problem at the campus level.

– Of the last nine Board meetings, the dates of four have been changed, making monitoring the meetings more difficult.

– In 2014 alone, Harmony contracted with 129 entities for amounts over $100,000 (this number is reported on IRS Form 990) but the vendor information is not publically available. Only the five largest contracts are listed in the IRS 990 tax forms.

As Harmony’s authorizer, the TEA has the power to gather records sufficient to conduct a comprehensive investigation. To date, Harmony has managed to evade such a comprehensive investigation. However, the TEA and the Commissioner of Education have the opportunity and the obligation to investigate the irregular practices and operations of Harmony Public Schools across the state that are exhaustively documented in this complaint. The TEA has the authority to address this organization’s questionable operations by reconstituting the Cosmos Foundation and applying sanctions, thereby preventing further mismanagement of state and federal tax dollars that makes victims of families, teachers, and taxpayers in Texas. We urge you to investigate Harmony’s discriminatory treatment of its employees and students, abuse of the H- 1B visa program, and questionable business practices, and to reconstitute the Cosmos Foundation governing board, to prevent further misconduct as is TEA’s prerogative, and indeed, duty.

Stay tuned to see how Texas responds.h1b

Scrutinizing and subsequently cutting off that convenient H-1B visa flow would be a good start.


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