Hacienda Heights/La Puente school board called ‘racist,’ self-serving in public report

Report gauges the district strengths, weaknesses in an effort to recruit a new superintendent
By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer
@stevscaz on Twitter

In a raw, highly critical report, parents, staff and teachers lashed out at the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District school board, some calling them “racist,” disrespectful to the community, and at times basing their decisions on personal agendas, favoritism and friendships instead of what is best for students.

The report, released over the objections of one board member Thursday night at a special school board meeting, is part of a process taken by the board to help it choose a successor to former superintendent Barbara Nakaoka, who retired after 42 years with the district on June 30.

The report, tabulated from 17 hours of meetings of anonymous comments from 199 people, said the next superintendent would have to try to tame an often divided, politically charged board that has “hidden agendas” by standing up to the board and saying “no” when he or she is right.

Filling the shoes of Nakaoka, 65, who did not attend the meeting, is a tough task. The report said some wanted the next superintendent to be a lot like her. A majority of one group suggested the board choose “a Nakaoka clone,” or someone with a breadth of experience in the classroom and as an administrator but who is “visible,” “friendly” and will “put her foot down” when needed.

The participants were described as passionate, involved in the district, and even “angry” at times, said the consultant.

“When you do this, it won’t make anybody happy,” said Frank Cosca, president of The Cosca Group, which conducted the meetings and produced the initial report for the board. Cosca’s agency was paid $26,000 to gauge what the community and the board wants in a new superintendent, and to recruit candidates.
The report listed many district positives, leading with a fiscally sound management approach that produced zero furlough days, a diverse district and staff, dedicated teachers and high academic achievement. HLPUSD’s average API score is 814 (out of 1,000), considered excellent. The board’s priority goal is to stem the flow of students from the district and address declining enrollment. Sometimes, parents send their children to Troy High School in Fullerton, a magnet school that recruits the cream of the crop from the eastern San Gabriel Valley. The board wanted a superintendent who “understands the role of the board and is not afraid to speak up and give the board advice.”

The board addressed a key issue that has plagued the two-cities district for decades: the divide between schools in La Puente and in Hacienda Heights. Commenters in Groups 7 and 10 wrote the board favors Hacienda Heights over La Puente and doesn’t provide equal programs at all high schools, according to the report. A majority of commenters in Group 7 wrote the board shows “racial favoritism/bias” when deciding on school staffing and projects.

After Board President Jay Chen insisted names be redacted, to which Cosca reluctantly and only partially agreed, the report mentions criticism of Los Altos High School leadership but specific names were removed. However, one group in the report, talking about racial bias, said Chen promoted college preparatory workshops and advertised to schools that excluded La Puente High and Workman High, something Chen said was not true.

“I held the last two college workshops in La Puente,” he said Friday. Chen said while a workshop in 2010 was held at Wilson High School, he held workshops in 2011 and 2012 at La Puente High, and one in 2009 at Workman High.

During the meeting, he called the issue a “perception problem,” but later made it a priority of the new superintendent to create a “one district sense of unity rather than a north-south divide.”

A small group in the audience reacted when Chen made his comments. One of them, Gilda L. Ochoa, a professor of sociology and Chicano/Latino studies at Pomona College who lives in La Puente, said many in the Latino community are deeply concerned about the divide. She said it starts at the top — three of the five board members are from Hacienda Heights.

“I am concerned on a number of levels on the issue of inequality. The school district is very unequal,” Ochoa said after the meeting. “There is more attention to Hacienda Heights than La Puente. They say it is a perception. It is not perception, it is reality.”

Recruitment letters will go out after being approved by the president and vice president of the board. Those candidates from within the district will no longer be treated differently as originally proposed by the board. The board ruled they, too, must submit resumes, as outside candidates.

Another change to the process came after Cosca raised concerns that board members and staff were calling him in an effort to influence the process. The board agreed not to call Cosca with concerns unless a member had a question. “No board member should be contacting you guys; no staff members should be contacting you guys and influencing the process,” said board member Anthony Duarte.

Chen said Costa and him had phone conversations about redacting the report to protect employees. Chen was disappointed in the report, calling it a regurgitation of comments without much analysis. “This isn’t about people airing grievances about employees. This is about finding a superintendent,” he said.

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About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.