In a holdover of the bitter division about creating a Mandarin immersion program in Palo Alto schools, a small group of Palo Altans is challenging the recent appointment of Grace Mah to the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
Organized by vocal Mandarin Immersion opponent Faith Brigel, the group Voters for Elected Education Governance has announced it will challenge the March 28 decision of the county board to appoint Grace Mah -- a leading proponent of a Mandarin Immersion "choice" program -- to the board. The vote had been 5-1.
Mah and other supporters of Mandarin Immersion have said they are now exploring creation of a Mandarin immersion charter school after the Palo Alto school board in January rejected a plan to create a choice program at Ohlone School. A choice program consists of one or more classes at a neighborhood school.
Mah's county-board appointment will fill the remaining 18 months of the term vacated by Williamson "Bill" Evers, who resigned in February to become assistant secretary of education in the Bush Administration.
Brigel said group members are circulating petitions to force a special election or a less-expensive mail-in election if that is possible for the vacancy.
"What we're really trying to do is help protect the (Palo Alto school) district," Brigel said. "We really want the district to put less time and money into just one small percentage of our population" that would be served either by a Mandarin Immersion choice program or a charter school.
Her concern is that Mah's appointment is adding to support for a Mandarin Immersion charter school on a board already supportive of such schools generally. The new group also is challenging Mah's qualifications and claiming that the board may have violated the state's Brown Act open-meeting law.
"If the voters in that area think that this board has made a mistake and would like to force our hand, I'm not sure there's a whole lot we can do about it," board President Gary Rummelhoff said.
"I'm not worried about it," Mah said. "They're entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to vote as they want to." Mah, a Palo Alto resident for 23 years, has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from Caltech and University of California, Berkeley respectively. She does not speak Mandarin.
The group has until April 27 to file a petition to block Mah's appointment, which otherwise becomes official on May 2.
Brigel said VEEG consists of five core members who formed the group in response to Mah's appointment. The group has 30 days from the announced appointment to gather signatures of 1.5 percent of the registered voters in an area known as "Trustee Area 1," which encompasses the Palo Alto Unified School District.
"We need 1,400 names, but we are trying for 2,000 in case there's a problem with any," Brigel said.
The board has already ordered a legal review, said Larry Slonaker of the County Office of Education.
"We are asking legal counsel to review what our options are and, if a petition is submitted (and) validated, what recourse we should take. I feel like it's premature to say definitely when an election would be held, what the cost would be, (and) what the most cost-effective way to do it would be."
"But we're not going to wait to study the issue, either," he said.
A special election would cost an estimated $1,035,842, according to Elma Rosas, spokeswoman for the county Registrar of Voters.
The registrar has estimated that a mail-ballot special election, if even allowed under state education and election codes, would cost $508,909, Slonaker said.
Rosas said she does not know how much a mail-in election would cost or whether that is an option.
The board had considered an election to fill the vacancy, Rummelhoff said.
"We decided to do an appointment because we felt the cost of a special election would be pretty high. It could be upwards of a million dollars for a special election to a board seat that's only 18 months."
There's precedence for appointments, Rummelhoff said. The board appointed Jane Howard to fill a vacated position and then she ran for election, he said.
In November 2008, "Grace will have to stand up to her constituents and convince them that she was the right choice," Rummelhoff said.
Brigel, who did not attend the county board's interview, said Mah has neither the experience nor credentials to have been appointed to this position.
"When you look at (other applicants) Barbara Spreng and Rose Filicetti, they've got much more experience and are much more qualified," Brigel said. She feels Mah does not measure up to Evers.
"She's been on a school site council; that's her claim to fame. She's been working on Mandarin immersion at home. She hasn't been working in the context of a real school, of a real charter program," she said. "To ask for something that I feel ultimately is not in the best interest of 95 percent of the school (district), makes me feel that she doesn't have integrity."
"I don't think she's an authority on what it takes to be a school board member," Mah said. "Barbara Spreng hasn't gone to as many school board meetings as I have to understand board policies and how administration and staff work for education programs."
"I'm not knocking Barb, I think she's fine," Mah added. "It would be nice if the PAEE (Palo Altans for Equity in Education, the opponents of Mandarin immersion) would do something constructive instead of destructive."
Her opponents had the opportunity to root for someone else at the public board interview in March, Mah said.
"They say they want to go out and open up elections so other people can apply with better credentials. But if they have someone waiting in the wings that wanted to apply they should have applied in the first place at the appointment level," Mah said.
The two women, Mah and Brigel, often attend Palo Alto Board of Education meetings and sit within rows away from each other. But both say they have never spoken to each other in person about the appointment issue. Mah said she recently wrote Brigel an e-mail asking to meet for coffee, preferably with a "mediator."
Brigel said she had never received any invitation to meet.
The possibility of a petition does not change the board's decision to appoint Mah, Rummelhoff said.
"(The petition) won't cause a rift," he said. This is the first time he has seen a negative campaign against the appointment of someone to the board, he added.
"There's no doubt in my mind, even at the time we nominated Grace, that there were people in the community strongly opposed to her point of view on dual immersion, but I didn't feel that was relevant to selecting what we thought was the best person to fill that spot," he said.
Board member Leon Beauchman said before Mah's interview he received a dozen e-mails opposing her appointment.
"They certainly had their opinion of whether or not she represented the community's views," he said. "It did pretty much appear to be around one issue -- the immersion school."
"You try not to base your decision on one issue that certainly intelligent people can have different views on."
Rummelhoff said he respects the right to call into question the board's decision, but in the interest of saving money and time he hopes everyone will move on.
"I only see a little more than a year that this person will be in place. There will be another election in November '08 and if Grace was not a good choice by this board then the voters can say no."