Wanting more community input and time for compromise efforts, the Palo Alto school board agreed to delay voting yes or no on the highly controversial Mandarin-immersion choice program until June 5.
The vote to delay was 4-1, with board President Camille Townsend dissenting. Four board members have indicated they would now support an MI "choice" program at Ohlone Elementary School starting in the fall of 2008, but no official vote has been taken.
"I think it's very disappointing," Grace Mah, a vocal proponent of the Mandarin-immersion choice program and Santa Clara County board member, said of the delay.
"I think it'll be useless," vocal opponent Duncan MacMillan said. "They are scared to death about charters." He expressed disappointment the board rejected his premise that a charter school would profit the school district.
"I'm not surprised," MI opponent Eileen Freyre said of the delay. "It's a difficult issue. It's become very divisive. I would like to have us move more quickly on a world-languages program for all elementary school students."
Board members Mandy Lowell and Dana Tom plan to hold a town hall meeting May 31 about their "swing votes." The place is still to be determined.
On Jan. 31 the board voted 3-2 (Townsend and board member Barb Mitchell in the minority) to reject Mandarinimmersion as a choice program despite strong staff support for such a program at Ohlone Elementary School that would have launched on a small scale in the fall of 2007.
But after MI proponents said they would proceed with a fall-back alternative of petitioning to create a charter school, Lowell and Tom reversed their positions. When they learned that a proposed Mandarin-immersion charter-school petition would cost the district $10,000 to $45,000 a year in legal fees, staff time and facility resources, they indicated they would consider implementing an immersion-choice program in the fall of 2008.
The MI issue has been around for more than five years. Over the course of several years, the school board met 18 times to consider Mandarin-immersion in Palo Alto, Mitchell said of research she has been doing.
Since the Jan. 31 vote, the board met twice with consulting attorney Ed Sklar to discuss costs and legal issues relating to charter schools. The board also met twice to consider implementing a choice program for fall of 2008, asking district staff to provide reports on a charter school versus choice program.
Jerry Matranga, associate superintendent for business services, produced another report Tuesday night on charter-school ongoing costs. He said for 80 charter-school students the district would lose $80,000 to $150,000 a year.
"If the district has a charter, it's going to cost the district money," he warned.
Parents concerned about the MI choice program urged the board to consider "equity" and fairness, stating that the Mandarin-immersion debate is about more than financial costs to the district.
Both Tom and Lowell said while they were convinced a charter school would not benefit the district in time, money and emotional energy, they expressed hope in the two-week delay the community might find a better solution for everyone.
"I can go with putting it off, with respect for the community if the community has something they want to tell us," Lowell said.
Townsend wanted the board to vote. "It's time to move on it," she said.
"I will respect the vote of the board as I did in January," Mitchell said of the board's Jan. 31 vote. She said she wanted to see a foreign-language-instruction program for all students.
"I personally apologize that we have not succeeded in bringing us together," Mitchell said.
Board member Gail Price wanted to delay the vote until July 1 to obtain input from Kevin Skelly, just named as the new superintendent.
"Am I sick of this?" Price said about the amount of time the district has spent on the issue.
"I am, too," Tom said. He also said he would like to see a plan to put foreign language in elementary schools.
"Let's try and reach across the table and get it right," Ron Baker, Terman Middle School PTA executive board member who moderated a PTA discussion on MI Monday afternoon, said about foreign-language programs in Palo Alto schools.
He said he is scheduled to meet with Mah over coffee in the next week.
Lowell and others expressed dismay about an apparent increase in racial tension in the community relating to the MI issue, often expressed most vehemently in e-mails.