A previously controversial federal grant for Mandarin instruction improved the district's Mandarin program and even saved a little money this year, Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook told the school board Tuesday night.
The district spent about $66,000 of the roughly $200,000 Federal Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant accepted last fall, using much to prepare for the Mandarin-immersion program scheduled to open at Ohlone Elementary School in August, she said.
Many community members — including former school board member Gail Price — spoke out against the grant last fall, fearing it would end up costing the district and unfairly privilege the Mandarin program.
The grant is a matching grant the district must fund equally.
Cook told the Weekly the grant was kept cost-neutral by applying costs that would have been spent anyway towards the matching requirement, such as teachers' salaries. For example, the district saved $26,000 by applying Norman Masuda's part-time salary as an instructional supervisor to high-school Mandarin to the grant, thereby earning as much in grant money to spend, she said.
The FLAP funds paid or will pay, for the start-up costs of the Mandarin-immersion program, including staffing to find and recruit new teachers, a program director and instructional materials, she said. They also fund materials and for the high school program.
Both the upcoming elementary program and the nascent high-school Mandarin program, started in 2006, benefited from the grant's requirement that an outside party review curriculum, Cook said. The district got feedback from specialists from Stanford University and the university's California Foreign Language Project during six meetings, she said.
The FLAP grant can run up to three years, pending approval, and the district has already been awarded up to $279,000 for next year, she said.
Board member Barbara Klausner asked if the other high school languages would benefit from spending on the Mandarin program.
Somewhat, Cook responded. The grant's terms specify its funds focus on Mandarin, but there could be some overlap with computer equipment expected to cost about $20,000, she said.
Board President Dana Tom asked whether a middle-school Mandarin program would be established to follow the expansion of the high-school program. Superintendent Kevin Skelly said staff would have to examine the issue and bring ideas to a future board discussion.
About 40 students will enroll in two mixed-language classes in August in the Ohlone program.
After the sometimes-vitriolic debate on the Mandarin-immersion program that stretched through more than 20 board meetings in the two previous school years, the discussion Tuesday was free of rancor.
Board members were visibly relieved when there were no public comments at its conclusion, indicating perhaps community members angry at the program's ultimate approval had finally let the issue go.
Cook's presentation was one of many in a meeting seemingly meant to cover every last issue facing the board before summer break.
Also discussed was the formation of a citizens' oversight committee for the $378 million bond Measure A passed by voters June 3 – a legal requirement under state Proposition 39 – as well as Skelly's goals for next year.
The committee will be a public body governed by state open-meeting laws. Its meetings will be public and it must have a Web site where minutes are posted, Co-chief Business Official Bob Golton said.
State law regulates who must be on the oversight committee. It requires representatives from business, senior citizens' and taxpayers organizations, as well as two district parents, one a member of a PTA or other parent-school group.
District employees, contractors or vendors may not apply.
The board and Skelly will put out advertisements for membership and conduct interviews Aug. 12, Skelly said.
For committee aspects not explicitly laid down by the state — such as how many members a committee should have — Golton researched how other districts did it, he said.
To make sure committee members felt responsible to actually show up to meetings, he recommended a seven-member committee of Palo Alto residents.
Skelly also presented his goal for next year – but not without some self-congratulation first.
The district succeeded in its goal of making communications with the community transparent this year, according to feedback he's heard, he said.
Under Skelly's leadership, perhaps every community member imaginable was solicited for feedback during the process of drafting a Strategic Plan to guide the next 12 years, from students to staff to alumni to community groups at schools.
Board members agreed much community trust has been earned this year.
Skelly also said relations have also improved with the Palo Alto Management Association, the group of district middle managers that took serious issue with leadership under prior Superintendent Mary Frances Callan.
Looking ahead, there's much work to be done, Skelly said. The bond measure to improve and expand school facilities passed — now the district will likely spend between $30 million and $40 million annually for the next 12 years on construction, he said.
And after the work of crafting the Strategic Plan, the district now must act on it, he said.
Board President Dana Tom agreed — enthusiastically.
"[The plan really has that new-car smell. I'd love to take it out for a spin," he said.
In other business, the board:
• Unanimously approved the 2008-2009 fiscal year budget of roughly $145 million. It is a balanced budget, according to Co-chief Business Official Cathy Mak.
• Unanimously approved the appointments of Mary Bussmann as principal of Walter Hays Elementary School and Todd Feinberg, class of 1993, as assistant principal of Palo Alto High School.
• Unanimously voted to establish a property tax rate on to-be-issued bonds no higher than the current $44.50 per $100,000 assessed valuation of homes and businesses.