Hacienda La Puente school board member Joseph Chang gets ready for a news… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
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."