Catherine Whitt: School district can’t afford Mandarin dual-language program

January 14, 2014 

As Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools face another round of harsh budget cuts and further spending limitations, we who support the system with our time and taxes must press upon the school board to evaluate every program and consider its costs and benefits.

The benefits of the Mandarin dual language program are well understood and certainly align closely with our community’s diversity and multicultural values. However the program’s incremental cost, significant teacher and student attrition issues, and proposed disruption to current school assignments make it very difficult to justify its continued support.

The unfortunate reality of the Mandarin program in its current state shared at the school board’s Dec. 2 public forum led many parents, including myself, to question its continued existence. Specifically:

• Expense – the administration’s most recent report shows the program costing almost $1,000 per student more than traditional elementary school.

• Attrition – when students leave the program it is very difficult to fill the vacancies, creating a situation where the fourth and fifth grades often contain fewer than 15 students per grade as compared to a system-wide average of 26 to 28 students. When teachers leave the positions are extremely difficult to fill and require a disproportionate amount of human resources time and roughly half the district’s entire teacher recruitment budget to secure appropriate candidates.

• Proposed expansion – while doubling the size of the program may somewhat address attrition concerns, the additional expense is incurred immediately and the accompanying redistricting with required busing will further add expense.

The school administration projects a $2.2 million budget shortfall for 2014-15. For the past three years, the school system has used cash reserves to cover similar shortfalls, but these reserves are now exhausted. These funds were paying the salaries of 32 teaching positions or 65 teacher assistant positions.

In an optimal budget situation we would be able to support every program that provides some benefit to our students but unfortunately we find ourselves in a true budget crisis. While it is a wonderful thing to have students fluent in Mandarin and English and the program perhaps made sense in a different budget climate, we simply can't afford this program or its expansion. The funds are urgently needed elsewhere in the system.

For these reasons, I signed the petition on http://www.change.org (search on “Mandarin Dual Language”) to defund the Mandarin DL Program. I urge the school board to make budget decisions with the best interests of all Chapel Hill-Carrboro students and their families in mind.

Catherine Whitt lives in Chapel Hill.

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