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Hacienda La Puente school district votes to censure Joseph Chang
By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Posted: 09/27/13, 7:49 PM
The Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board censured fellow board member Joseph Chang on Thursday night, citing several ethics violations, including taking unauthorized trips to China to recruit foreign students, violating the board’s conflict of interest policy and overstepping his authority.
This was the first censure of a board member in the history of the district, according to school officials. Founded in 1970, HLPUSD is the largest school district in the San Gabriel Valley with 78,000 K-12 and adult students at 17 elementary, six K-8, four middle and five high schools and adult-education facilities.
The board voted 3-1 for censure. School board members Jay Chen, Anthony Duarte and Rudy Chavarria voted in favor, while Chang voted in opposition. Board member Gino Kwok abstained.
Censure is a rebuke by the board of Chang’s actions but holds no other legal ramifications. Chang can continue in his duties on the board and is also running for re-election on Nov. 5.
Earlier this month, Board member Anthony Duarte asked for the censure motion after a 66-page report authorized by the former superintendent said Chang’s trips were inappropriate and unauthorized. The report said his trips were paid for by BELA, a private recruiting firm, or by Norman Hsu, a former board member and the managing director of BELA. BELA can make between $7,500 and $15,000 over two years, according to the report. Chang’s participation, combined with his votes on the program and specifically on lowering district tuition for foreign students, could constitute a conflict of interest, according to the report.
Hsu, speaking through his attorneys at Dhillon & Smith, said in a written answer to questions that “BELA does not charge students to come to the United States.” The attorneys also wrote that BELA has not received compensation for housing students in the U.S.
The report also contends Chang may have pressured teachers at Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights to accept students from China who did not meet English language proficiency requirements in order to continue the flow of students into Wilson High. The report said Chang’s credibility could have been in question when he suggested a student from China continue attend district schools illegally, beyond the federal visa one-year limit.
“The consensus is the staff felt they were pressured and bullied by Dr. Chang,” Duarte said before voting in favor of censure.
He said the issue raised by other board members that the public may not have had adequate time to understand the censure was resolved, saying the community has read the report and many have expressed their views to the board since it was detailed in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune earlier this month.
Chang and Kwok are being investigated by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Public Integrity Division, which has asked for the two board member’s economic interest forms and other pertinent board documents relating to unauthorized trips to China and the possible connection to BELA.
Kwok said his trip to China was authorized. He was not subject to censure.
Chang sat silent during most of the discussion on censure. After Chen read a lengthy motion citing the reasons for censure, Chang blurted out: “All these allegations are without proof. They were fabricated by you.”
Attorney Steven Haskins, with the law firm Arent Fox, read a letter to the board written by Chang’s main attorney, Stephen G. Larson, asking the board to hold off on a censure motion until the District Attorney’s investigation is concluded.
He also said the Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating.
“We are confident that, after these false claims are fully reviewed by the authorities, Dr. Chang will be found to be completely innocent of any allegation of wrongdoing,” Haskins read from the letter.
Longtime board critic Rudy Obad said during the public comment period that the international program should be suspended. “Mr. Chang, I say you should resign. But if you are proven guilty, I hope they lock you up.”
Margaret Caldera, CSEA spokesperson and 26-year employee, cited the problems listed in the report with some of the foreign students who were living in homes without adequate food and heat. One student reported to the district police that he was so stressed his hair was falling out.
“There were reports of child abuse and neglect. That is where our main focus should be,” she said. Caldera asked the board to examine the district’s police reports on the allegations of poor living conditions.
Chen said the censure action will help the board regain the trust of the public and help the district “to put this behind us.”