A federal grant will pay for start-up costs of next year's Mandarin-immersion program and for high-school Mandarin instruction, the Palo Alto school board voted 4-1 Tuesday night.
The district is required to match the $198,000 grant, but the board voted to accept it after staff reassurances of cost-neutrality for the MI program.
Board member Gail Price voted against accepting the money, citing concerns of long-term viability and fairness. Other board members voted in favor after questioning Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who tried to quell doubts and generate enthusiasm for the grant.
The U.S. Department of Education grant will take effect immediately to fund a Mandarin-immersion program for 80 students slated to start at Ohlone Elementary School in August.
The money will cover initial expenses such as staff training and purchase of equipment, according to a budget provided by Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook and Becki Cohn-Vargas, the district's curriculum and professional development director. It will also pay for high-school Mandarin textbooks and supplies.
The matching funds required from the district will be provided by money already budgeted for the high school program, Cook said at the last board meeting.
Yet Price expressed suspicion Tuesday night that the grant would end up costing the district quite a bit.
"I have concerns about the supposed cost-neutrality of this program," she said.
According to grant terms the district could receive funds for three years, pending annual federal reviews. But the grant's limited timeline means the district may eventually have to ante up all the money for a Mandarin program, Price said.
"That money will have to come from our General Fund," she said.
Yet supporting programming with the General Fund is not unheard of, board member Dana Tom said.
The cost of reducing class size isn't completely covered by parcel-tax money, he said.
"From our General Fund we underwrite that difference because it's important to us," he said.
But Skelly sought to reassure board members that the money would only cover start-up costs. Accepting the grant would not set a precedent of generating operational costs the district would one day have to assume, he said.
"The grant will allow us to pay for start-up costs," he said repeatedly.
To ease misgivings about where the money goes, the district will track spending and present an outline in spring, Skelly vowed.
The bottom line is that the grant will improve educational quality, he said.
"We should use this grant to accept resources that will come into our district to move the level of teaching to our kids forward," he said.
Yet it was precisely the quality of a Mandarin program that concerned others.
It would be inequitable if Mandarin instruction became markedly better than the instruction of other languages, Price said.
Lowell asked if the technological supplies bought for the high-school Mandarin classes could also be used by students in other classes.
And parent Lynne Magill held aloft a beat-up book whose worn cover was slipping off its pages during the public comment period.
"This is my child's Japanese textbook," she said.
She asked if the grant money could be used for other foreign languages as well, citing a section of the federal Web site that described a long list of eligible languages.
There may be ways to spread some of the money, Skelly said.
"It's not in our interest to create a program that's luxurious while other programs suffer. I continue to see spillover opportunities in terms of this money," he said.
Price also questioned the grant's timeline, pointing out that instituting the program creates expectations for continuity.
The district can change its mind about taking federal money if a spring review determines it's not a good idea to accept it for a second year, Skelly said.
Price's objections echoed concerns raised last year during the long-standing debate about starting a Mandarin-immersion program. She was the only one to vote against the program on the final vote.
To counter the notion that taking the money was a political move tied to past opinions, board member Barb Mitchell pointed out that many programs are paid for by external grants.
"About 15 percent of the money the district receives comes from state or federal funding," she said. The money pays for features that enhance education, such as reading specialists or classroom aides, she said.
While responses from Skelly and Mitchell did not win over Price, others needed no reassurance.
"Since the beginning of my time on the board in 2003 we have struggled for money, and to get local money back from the federal government is really unique," board President Camille Townsend said.
"I view this as a positive," Tom agreed.
Lowell acknowledged that the Mandarin-immersion program will remain contentious for years to come, but voted to accept the grant because it will ultimately benefit children, she said.
In other business, the board:
* Heard an assessment report on testing that confirmed Palo Alto's high-achieving status. An average student scoring in the 50th percentile in Palo Alto would score in the 92nd percentile nationally, Assessment Director Bill Garrison reported.
About half the students at Palo Alto High School and Gunn took college-level advanced-placement tests last year, he said.
About 79 percent of students scored well enough to receive college credit, according to a presentation from Garrison and Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence.
"It's a blessing and a curse," to have such a well-scoring district, Laurence said. Frequently students struggle with self-esteem of feeling mediocre when they are actually very talented, he said.
* Discussed an agreement with Los Altos School District to allow students in Los Altos Hills to choose between attending elementary school in Los Altos Hills or Palo Alto.
The agreement does not affect Palo Alto's schools financially because the district gets most funding from property tax revenues, Skelly said. The board will vote on the agreement at its Oct. 23 meeting.
(Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.)