In a last-minute effort to stop the Mandarin immersion choice program, concerned Terman Middle School parents are asking the Palo Alto school board to delay its vote on creating a Mandarin-immersion choice program, scheduled for Tuesday.
"Your decision is short-sighted," Eileen Freyre, a parent, said to board members Dana Tom and Mandy Lowell, who attended a town hall meeting at Terman Monday afternoon. "I think you're setting a horrible, horrible and dangerous precedent."
She said that her sentiments are echoed by the vast majority of Palo Alto parents.
A small group of dissatisfied parents can simply wave a petition to start a charter school -- considered costly for the district -- and the board will give into their demands, Freyre said.
"Having a charter school in our district is not a precedent I would like to (have) go," Tom responded.
Lowell and Tom voted Jan. 31 against launching a Mandarin-immersion choice program, but the pair indicated they would change their vote after proponents of Mandarin immersion announced they would pursue a charter school.
"The Executive Board of the Terman Middle School PTA does hereby recommend and advocate that the Palo Alto School Board delay the Mandarin Immersion vote for such time as is reasonably required for appropriate public forums and debate, and installation of the new superintendent so that the matter can be fully considered by the Board and Community," the Terman PTA executive board stated last Thursday.
Kevin Skelly, who will become Palo Alto Unified School District's new superintendent on July 1, has declined to comment on the Mandarin-immersion debate.
Parents contended the school board had not adequately demonstrated to the community how a Mandarin-immersion (MI) choice program could be "cost neutral."
"I would like to see an oversight on the MI program as its standards and an evaluation on its cost-neutrality," one parent said.
Mandarin-speaking substitute teachers would be difficult to find, program opponent Lisa Steinback said.
"I'm trying to make a rational decision," Lowell said. "In ongoing costs, an immersion charter would likely drain over $100,000 for 80 district students and over $1,500 per non-resident student," Lowell said.
As for a choice program, "a bilingual teacher costs no more, so there would be no 'add on' to the basic classroom salary and per student amounts," she said.
Lowell pointed out that there are 197 language-immersion programs in California. There would not be that many if the program were too costly, both she and Tom said. Lowell pointed out that the district has experience with the Spanish-immersion program at Escondido Elementary School.
Another parent voiced concern that if the Mandarin-immersion proponents' children do not get into the choice program at Ohlone Elementary School, they could still bring a charter petition. Then board members would be face with two bad scenarios: setting bad precedent for changing their minds and a charter petition.
"They really have us," one parent said about the parents advocating for Mandarin immersion.
Parents at the meeting also voiced concern that the choice program would favor Chinese students who can speak some Mandarin.
But only a few in the group were willing to tell Tom and Lowell that "fighting a charter" was a priority for where district resources should go.
Lowell and Tom urged parents to talk to legislators in Sacramento about the detrimental effects the permissive nature of charter schools have on local districts.
"How can we get the benefits of a charter without imposing harm?" Lowell asked the group.
Leading Mandarin-immersion proponent Grace Mah was not present at the meeting. She asked Lowell beforehand to bring a mediator to the town hall meeting, but Lowell declined, Mah said.
"Since she declined to have a moderator I decided not to go," Mah said. "There was no point in having a meeting with people yelling at me."
She added that if the school board votes to implement a Mandarin choice program at Ohlone and her child does not get in, she and her group would not seek a charter petition.
Mah would need 20 signatures to start a petition application. Gary Rummelhoff, Santa Clara County school board president, said most petitioners garner the requisite number of signatures. What's most important is how competently petitioners put together the charter and the likelihood of success, he said.
In this case, both Tom and Lowell said they believed the Mandarin-immersion proponents would have a strong likelihood of success.
The school board will vote on the Mandarin-immersion choice program Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the district office at 25 Churchill Ave.