Nearly 100 parents packed the multi-purpose room at Ohlone Elementary School Thursday night to question Palo Alto Unified School District administrators and lawyers and speak out about starting a Mandarin-immersion "choice" program at a neighborhood school or as a separate charter school.
The town hall meeting was not an official school board meeting, though board President Camille Townsend and board members Mandy Lowell and Dana Tom attended the meeting. The officials did not speak on the issue.
On Tuesday, the board is expected to make its final decision on whether to launch a Mandarin-language choice program.
Jack Hamilton, who recently mediated Palo Alto's Taser Task Force debate, facilitated the night's discussion.
One parent after another asked the board to wait to vote until a charter petition had been filed.
"I feel like we're putting the cart before the horse," Cathy Fitzgerald said. "It seems like we're doing this out of fear."
She asked educators to put Mandarin-immersion out to a popular vote.
"What is the rush?" she asked as other parents applauded.
"I'd like you to reaffirm your vote in January," Ohlone parent Eileen Freyre said to Lowell and Tom, "and would only like you to revisit in such time when a petition is filed."
Greg Kovacs, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, refuted the idea that Mandarin is essential for global competitiveness, as proponents contend.
"It is technology and math" that the board should focus their priorities on -- not languages, Kovacs said. The United States will lead the world in technology, and "the business language is English," he said as parents cheered and applauded.
By the time a district gets a petition, however, it will be too late to reconsider a measure such as a Mandarin-immersion choice program, according to the district's attorneys.
"The clock starts ticking," said Ed Sklar of Lozano Smith, a law firm representing 300 school districts throughout California. A district has only 30 days to hold a public hearing on the petition and 60 days to make a decision, he said.
"It will be approved," Lou Lozano, co-founding attorney of Lozano Smith, said about the likelihood of a petition meeting statutory legal requirements.
While some charters fail, in the case of Palo Alto Mandarin-immersion the school board would have a difficult time denying a petition, Lozano said. Mandarin-immersion proponents had a carefully laid-out plan for their proposed choice program and would likely submit an equally competent charter petition.
"We don't think there is a high probability of success in opposing the charter," he said. "That's our assessment."
"They (district officials) could fight it, but we're talking about a protracted legal battle," Lozano added.
"Sounds like extortion to me," one parent responded.
Superintendent Mary Frances Callan addressed parents who said Mandarin-immersion does not fit the strategic plan: "Everything fits our strategic plan. We say we want to foster the genius in every child."
Taking into consideration enrollment growth, educators laid out three possible scenarios for the proposed Mandarin-immersion program after its first three pilot years at Ohlone.
If the program were to prove successful, the district could move Mandarin-immersion to another site, similar to how Spanish-immersion moved from Fairmeadow Elementary to Escondido, Callan said.
The program could also expand at Ohlone into more classrooms.
Ohlone Principal Susan Charles tried to allay concerns that the Mandarin-language community would exist separately from the rest of the elementary school community. Students in the Mandarin-immersion strand at Ohlone would participate together with regular students in schoolwide activities.
"We do a whole lot of stuff together," she said. The program would not be a "community within a community."
Parents expressed a lack of trust in the district's calculations showing that a choice program would be cost neutral, compared to higher costs from a charter school. It is district policy that choice programs, regardless of type, be cost-neutral, Callan said.
Associate Superintendent Jerry Matranga said had worked in districts with charters, and charters cost districts money. In Palo Alto, a charter would cause a district to lose money to the tune of $1,400 per charter-school student.
Currently the district spends $12,000 on each student through basic aid money, parcel tax revenue, leases and arrangements through the city, Matranga said.
Students also get money donated through Partners in Education and the PTA. Some parents said they might refrain from donating to the district next year due to Mandarin immersion.
Concluding the town hall meeting, Callan said she hoped the energy parents have surrounding Mandarin-immersion would continue on to the implementation of a foreign-languages program for all students. She asked parents to continue their passion for closing the achievement gap and supporting children socially and emotionally.
"Whatever decision is brought forth on Tuesday, we can work together," she said.
"It truly breaks my heart that people become so angry. I'm still trying to figure out what is their anger," Charles said.
"Take that anger and do something good with it. To say we are an amazing community is a caring community," she said. "Please, go back to that -- go back to the caring."