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Hacienda La Puente school board member criticized over China trips
Board will consider whether to censure Joseph Chang in wake of district probe that found his trips created a conflict of interest. Chang denies wrongdoing, calls attacks politically motivated.
Hacienda La Puente school board member Joseph Chang gets ready for a news conference in Hacienda Heights at which he responded to accusations of conflict of interest. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times / September 25, 2013)
By Cindy Chang
September 25, 2013, 9:11 p.m.
In an auditorium in eastern China, Hacienda La Puente school board member Joseph Chang posed for a photograph with 15 students who planned to spend their senior year at Wilson High.
Wearing a black suit and red tie, a beaming Chang was surrounded by teenagers whose parents would shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a year of secondary education in Hacienda Heights, ideally followed by a top American university.
Also at the school that day in August 2012 was Norman Hsu, a former school board member who now works for Bela Education Group, a private company that recruits Chinese students to study in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.
Chang is now facing questions over who paid his airfare to China and whether he used his elected position to benefit Hsu's company.
On Thursday, Chang's school board colleagues will consider whether to censure him after a district investigation found that the trip and several others created a conflict of interest. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has written to the school district asking for documents relating to Chang's China travels.
"There are very questionable ties to existing and past board members," said school board President Jay Chen, who is critical of the arrangement with Bela. "There are far too many conflicts of interest, the kind of thing that really shakes public confidence in elected officials."
Chang held a news conference Wednesday to accuse Chen of attacking him for political gain. A math professor at Cal State Fullerton, Chang is up for reelection in November, with five other candidates competing for three seats.
"My Bela relationship is only to help them to establish the program," Chang said. "I don't have anything from Bela. Nothing. So this always tying me to Bela is a false accusation, trying to fabricate that I got profits from them. This is really, really dirty politicians trying to attack me."
In a December 2012 public disclosure, Chang declared that Bela had paid his $1,000 airfare for each of three recruiting trips to China. He said Wednesday that Hsu, who is Bela's managing director, picked up the tab, and that he has since reimbursed his friend.
Gifts to California elected officials are normally subject to a $420 limit, though some types of travel are exempt. Chang said his trips to China were legal because he was offering his expertise as an educator.
Chang's critics also allege that he has advocated to keep the district's international student tuition low so Bela can reap a higher profit, and that he has pressured school officials to accept unqualified Chinese students.
Under federal law, an international student who enrolls in a public high school must pay the full cost of his or her education. That means tuition in the neighborhood of $15,000 in some school districts.
The Hacienda La Puente district, which has about 20 students from China this year, initially charged $8,600, then raised its fee this summer to $12,900 with the support of all but one board member — still below the $14,459 that the district is spending per pupil this year.
Bela lists a tuition of nearly $15,000 on its website, along with fees for SAT classes, visa processing and room and board. In all, Chinese families pay Bela about $30,000.
In an interview Wednesday, Chang said he believed that the $12,900 tuition fee reflected the actual cost to the district. He also said that he has inquired about the status of some international student applications but never pushed school officials to change denials into acceptances.
Most Chinese students enrolled at Hacienda La Puente this year and last year were not directly associated with Bela, though receipts from the school district listed Chang or Hsu as the recruiter for some students. Bela's presence in the school district, which is already home to many Chinese families, will expand next year with 30 students.
Hsu, who served on the school board for two decades until 2011 and is still influential in the Hacienda Heights Chinese community, acknowledged that he works for Bela but said he is not involved in any programs related to the school district.
The district's May 2013 investigative report also found students living with host families who did not always provide them with adequate food, heat or supervision. School administrators have been taxed by the extra work of helping foreign students in the country without their families, the report said.
"It shouldn't be costing the district and overtaxing the teachers," said Jane Shults, head of the Hacienda La Puente Teachers Assn. "It's a great program to have, but we need to have enough money to take care of these kids."
District Attorney investigating two Hacienda La Puente board members
By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Posted: 09/25/13, 9:56 PM
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into two board members with the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District regarding possible illegalities stemming from unauthorized trips to China, the newspaper has learned.
A letter from District Attorney Jackie Lacey, dated Sept. 19, asks the school district for several documents, including economic interest forms filed by Gino Kwok and Joseph Chang. The forms declare gifts or other compensation received from outsiders.
According to the letter, the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division, which looks into wrongdoing of public officials, “is conducting an investigation which requires access to certain documents ...”
The letter is signed by Lacey and was addressed to HLPUSD Interim Superintendent Cynthia Parulan-Colfer.
District Attorney spokeswoman Jean Guccione, when asked if the D.A. had received any of the requested documents said: “We have no comment.”
The D.A. also is asking for board meeting minutes in which “trips to China involving any HLPUSD employee were approved,” the letter stated.
Finally, the letter asks the district for a copy of a report examining possible wrongdoings involving the district’s foreign student program. The D.A. asked for the non-redacted version of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District Administrative Audit, which was prepared by Lozano Smith and attorneys, as well as private investigators from Norman A. Traub Associates.
According to an article from Sept. 12 in this newspaper, the report laid out serious problems with the program, including host homes with no heat and inadequate food, as well as students subject to verbal abuse and physical ailments.
The report also focused on four trips to China made by Chang with former board member Norman Hsu, who is affiliated with a private company called BELA Educational Group, which charges students to attend local high schools. Chang and Hsu were visiting schools in China and attempting to recruit Chinese students to attend Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights for a year.
Hsu, listed as CEO of BELA in a Chinese media report, was collecting $15,000 or more from each student to attend American high schools for a year, according to the report. The HLPUSD charged some of the lowest tuition fees in the region until the board tried to raise the tuition to $14,000. The raise was voted down by Chang and Kwok, who along with the board majority in July, voted to lower the fee to $12,900.
In comparison, Walnut Valley Unified School District charges $15,000 per student.
The report concluded that Chang did not tell the board about his trips to China with Hsu and were not authorized by the board. In the report, Chang said he was paid $3,000 for airfare from Hsu, but paid the money back. He said he did not act as an official board representative.
At a press conference in Hacienda Heights on Wednesday, Chang denied any wrongdoing.
“I made these trips with good intentions,” he told a mostly friendly audience of supporters gathered at the K-CAL Insurance Co. in a strip mall off Hacienda Boulevard.
“Hopefully, we can recruit good international students,” he said.
When a reporter asked him who paid for his trips to China, he said “my friend” — but when pressed to identify the individual, Chang refused.
Kwok, who attended the conference but did not make a statement, said in an interview that he was surprised his name was on the District Attorney’s letter. “I spoke to Superintendent Cynthia Parulan-Colfer recently, and she said that there is no reason for my name to be involved in any D.A. matter because my name is not even mentioned in any school district investigation,” he wrote in a prepared statement.
When asked if he took trips to China, he said: “No. Absolutely not.”
Hsu would not answer any questions about his organization BELA, his trips to China, how much revenue the organization receives per student, or the poor living conditions cited in the report in a few of the host homes.
He referred all inquiries to his lawyer. When asked to provide his lawyer’s name or contact, he refused.
“I am not a board member. So I can do anything I want, as long as it is legal,” Hsu said.
When asked about the accusations in the report about Chang asking a teacher to extend the one-year visa of a student from China or about pressuring the district to accept students from China who were not academically qualified, Chang either denied the allegation or blamed fellow board member Jay Chen.
“He (Chen) is attacking me ... to develop his political career,” Chang said.
In November, Chen ran for Congress as a Democrat and lost to incumbent Rep. Ed Royce, R-Rowland Heights. Hsu and Chang were supporters of Royce.
Chen, reached by phone, said he did not know how to respond to such an allegation.
He has been raising the issue of the foreign student program for almost a year. He said he was concerned a board member or former board member may be profiting off of students that come to the district and take up an inordinate amount of teacher time, time that is taken away from the district’s resident students.
“I think this is a very serious matter,” Chen said. “The D.A. would not be putting forward this case unless there is significant indication some wrongdoing has taken place.”
He emphasized that the District Attorney is looking into two board members only and not the district or its administration. “The district has not been accused of doing anything wrong.”
At its meeting today, the school board has scheduled a censure of board member Chang.
A censure is a rebuke of a school board member’s behavior.