Suit claims Montecito Fine Arts school preyed on immigrant families

Exterior of the Montecito Fine Arts campus in Monrovia, Calif.
Exterior of the Montecito Fine Arts campus in Monrovia, Calif.

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In a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court today, 77 people claim the operators of Montecito Fine Arts School defrauded them before closing last summer.

For years, Montecito Fine Arts School offered high school, certificate and Bachelor of Fine Art courses in art, design and animation at its Monrovia and Arcadia campuses. The private company expanded to Brea with similar after-school, summer, and weekend course offerings. Enrollment surged to over 1,200 students.

In May of last year, Diamond Bar State Senator Bob Huff honored school founder Ed Kuckelkorn with a small business of the year award. Two months later the school shut its doors. Lawyer Majid Foroozandeh, who represents the school’s founder in bankruptcy proceedings, said the economy’s to blame.

"There was a rather sharp drop in the enrollment of the students as well as the ones that had been enrolled there as a decline in meeting their financial obligations. There were not timely payments being made," he said.

Plaintiffs' lawyers tell a different story. They say the school advertised heavily on Southland Chinese media outlets. Once approached, immigrant parents were guaranteed that Montecito Fine Arts courses would help their teenage children gain entry to Harvard University, the Art Center College of Design, and prestigious internships at companies like DreamWorks Studios.

The school falsely claimed college accreditation, and concealed financial troubles, said Julie Su, a lawyer with the non-profit Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

She said school administrators did so knowing that many immigrants don’t know enough about education in this country to be skeptical of big promises.

"There is both, taking advantage of immigrants because of limited English proficiency and a lack of knowledge about the law as well as a perception, that is unfortunately sometimes true, that immigrants are not going to stand up and fight back," she said.

Plaintiffs seek to recoup nearly $1.5 million in tuition they paid. Yu-Chen Lin, of West Covina, paid $75,000 in up-front tuition to enroll her four teenagers. Her late parents — natives of Taiwan — had given her the money to help pay for her children’s education. Three months later the school closed.

"I’m shocked, I almost died. Because I’m a single parent, it’s so difficult for me to have the money to help my kids get an education. Especially, for me it was the ending of the world."

A lawyer for school co-founder Ed Kuckelkorn said his client would not be available for comment.

Lapsed legislation allowed Montecito Fine Arts, an unaccredited private school, to operate beyond state regulators’ radar. The school’s closing and the parents’ complaints led the state to launch the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. The agency’s created a tuition recovery fund, and it forbids false claims by these kinds of schools.