If Columbia County school officials want to kill elementary foreign language program and keep their hands clean, a referendum is the way to do it.
They've have been stung for months by a straw-poll question in which voters overwhelmingly said they wanted to vote countywide for the Board of Education chairman. Voters will see the question again on this fall's General Election ballot. If, as expected, voters again say yes, lawmakers next spring will put the chairmanship in place.
Unrelated to this debate but occurring about the same time, the school system has been studying elementary foreign language instruction. After a study committee recommended expanding the program countywide, most elementary councils gave their approval.
Despite the broad support, advocates of the Stevens Creek Elementary foreign language program, a partially state-funded model, have been skeptical that the county would expand the program beyond their fortunate school. After all, the system has never directly funded Stevens Creek's Spanish teachers, and only bailed out South Columbia's now-defunct program in its final year.
And it would be expensive. Phasing in the state's proven foreign language model program in all Columbia County elementary schools would cost as much as $600,000 the first year, up to $4 million when implemented in all elementary grades. Cutting instruction to three days a week instead of five would also trim the full cost to an estimated $2.5 million.
School officials, led by Superin-tendent Tommy Price, say the program is valuable, but warn repeatedly about its cost.
Without the nerve to either invest in the program or to admit that reluctance to parents, school officials are taking a page from the chairmanship argument: They're planning to hand the program's fate over to voters.
As presented last week to the school board, the system would place a question on the July 20 primary ballots. A draft question asks voters if they want to raise property taxes to fund foreign language instruction in elementary school.
Aside from the obvious front-loading of the tax-increase portion of the question, when have government officials ever yielded to voters their decision-making authority over programs and curriculum? Isn't that why we have elections for a school board?
To her credit, trustee Regina Buccafusco is asking such questions, noting that the county already pays more for elementary enrichment teachers than we get from state funding. "We didn't ask the voters if they wanted to fund the other enrichment teachers above the state allotment," she says.
There is precedent for voters addressing issues of funding but only for capital projects. Columbia County voters, in fact, have never said no to the school system's request for additional or continued funding for new facilities.
However, it is an abdication of the school leaders' responsibility for them to turn over curriculum questions to voters at large, and sends them down a slope that they may find uncomfortably slippery. What if voters decide, for example, that they want the tax cut they could get from cutting bus service? Or by getting rid of elementary art teachers and having regular classroom teachers give art instruction?
Having been burned by the chairmanship question, school officials are giving this issue a taste of the same medicine. Foreign language proponents will try to convince voters to come to the rescue of a noble idea; sadly, noble ideas don't fare well among taxpayers, many of whom have no children in public schools. This noble cause, and any hope of ex-panding the elementary foreign language program, is likely doomed.
And clever school officials, having surrendered the program to the mob, will have clean hands.
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