Tuesday night the Palo Alto Board of Education got word that proponents for Mandarin-immersion education, which was shot down in January as a "choice" program for the school district, now want a charter school to start in fall 2008.
Proponent Grace Mah feels she has no alternative but to pursue a charter even though it is not her first choice. Mah said she plans to work with an attorney, apply for grants and raise private funds to start the charter school. The typical start-up cost for a charter school is $400,000, she said.
The board spent more than an hour and a half Tuesday night on an informational session, learning what the district would have to do to review a charter-school petition.
"There's a lot of reviewing and a lot of writing," said attorney Edward Sklar of Lozano Smith, who presented to the board. Educators and legal counsel are statutorily required to consider the petition, Sklar said, and the review usually takes the full 60 days allowed by the statute.
The district would be responsible for appointing a staff member to be the contact person between the charter school and district. It also must make annual visits to the charter school, ensure compliance with charter school standards, and monitor the fiscal condition of the charter.
"The district is obligated to pay the charter in lieu of the property tax funds," Sklar said. The charter school also has the legal right to seek parcel tax and "basic aid" funding from the district, Sklar said.
The district also would be legally required to provide facilities for the program, Sklar said. The district could charge the school but at below-market rates, he said.
District Business Manager Jerry Matranga said a charter school would affect the district's 20-year facilities plan.
"The people who are going to be reviewing the charter and looking at cost structure and business factors that go along with the school Ö who is going to be doing the work here while they're doing the review?" Matranga asked. "It's taking a tremendous amount of staff time."
Board members did not appear enthusiastic about the charter school idea.
"It's not my belief that we serve this district well if we free people to go to a charter," said Board President Camille Townsend, who had favored starting up the Mandarin-immersion choice program.
Board member Mandy Lowell, who voted against the program in January, complained that Mandarin immersion was taking up too much board time and not allowing for the board to take care of other matters. She also said she did not want to see residual "acrimony" in the district with a charter school.
However, she said, "If I have to live with a charter school, I'll live with a charter school."
Mandarin-immersion backers could take their bid for a charter school all the way to the state level, if the district were to turn down their petition.
Proponents can appeal to the county, Sklar said. If the county denies the charter, the proponents can appeal to the state.
But once the charter petition goes to the county and if the county approves, the charter would be out of the district's control.
"The district has very little say and very little oversight over the program," he said.
And the district would have to pay the county for overseeing the charter, Superintendent Mary Frances Callan said.
Giving a local example, the Los Altos School District had denied a charter petition, which was then appealed to the county, she said. The county approved the petition.
"Now Los Altos has to pay the county three percent of its charter for oversight versus one percent if they had approved that charter," she said.
A new charter school in the district becomes a separate governing body with whom the district has to work, both Matranga and Callan said. For example, if the board wished to pursue a bond measure, the board would have to work with the charter, Callan added.
The possibility of revisiting Mandarin immersion as a choice program came up as a consideration during Tuesday's discussion.
Callan said it would take less time and money to implement a choice program than to start a charter school.
Even Mah is aware of the costs that launching and operating a charter school could incur.
"I think, from a resources standpoint, the charter-school effect will be a heavy burden for everyone involved," she said.
Board member Gail Price, who also voted against the program in January, urged the board to stop talking about Mandarin immersion.
"We already agreed we have spent so much time on it all these years," she said. "We need to be able to give our staff time to address other issues. I propose we end this discussion tonight."
Residents, however, are still talking about it. As regards the cost of the program, Mandarin-immersion proponent Martin Stone said, "The better question the board should have asked with respect to the potential economic costs is that it might have been better to have signed onto Mandarin immersion (choice program) than not." He added, "At this point itís a dollar and cents question."