San Jose Mercury News

Monday, September 21, 1998

Unz: District Violates Law
Bilingual education dispute crops up in Gilroy.
By JACK FOLEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

Gilroy schools are violating Proposition 227, said the law's author, which means school board members and the superintendent could be sued for damages by parents.

Trustees voted unanimously in August to teach non-English-speaking students 60 percent in English and 40 percent in Spanish as they phased out bilingual programs to comply with the new law.

But Proposition 227 author Ron Unz said Friday that the law's actual wording stipulates that classroom instruction for non-English-speaking students -- those enrolled in ``sheltered English immersion'' programs -- must be conducted ``nearly all'' in English.

Sixty percent does not come close to complying, Unz said Friday when told of the Gilroy policy. He said his office had received calls from parents asking about it.

``It's completely illegal,'' Unz said. `` `Nearly all' could mean 98 percent or 99 percent or even 97 percent, but it does not mean 60 percent. The law is very clear and the district seems to be ignoring the law.''

At least two Gilroy school board members Friday said they now believe they may have been misled by staff reports and may ask that the board revisit the issue. The board took its August action without seeking legal advice, said trustee Patricia Blomquist.

``This was by no means an act of defiance,'' she said. ``If we blew it, we'd better review the issue and pull back.''

However, Gilroy schools Superintendent David Alvarez defended the district policy Friday, insisting several times that it is in ``complete'' compliance with state regulations and Proposition 227.

Asked what regulations he was referring to, Alvarez conceded he is unfamiliar with all the particulars of the laws and referred questions to the district's Proposition 227 expert, David Pribyl. But Pribyl declined to comment before he could do more research on the law.

Rae Belisle, legal counsel to the state Board of Education, said Friday that regulations adopted by the board to help districts implement Proposition 227 do not discuss percentages of time in which instruction in English must be given. Instead, the regulations use the term ``nearly all,'' the same language contained in the initiative.

In Gilroy, school trustees said they depended upon information supplied by Alvarez and Pribyl when debating how to comply with the law and settled on a 60-40 ratio for students learning English.

Several trustees said Pribyl used the term ``overwhelmingly'' to describe how much instruction must be in English but never mentioned the ``nearly all'' standard.

``This is the first time I have heard `nearly all,' '' Trustee Mark Good said Friday. He conceded he may not have read Proposition 227 carefully. ``I will be e-mailing the superintendent to ask what the hell is going on.''

Under the new law, school board members and district officials can be held personally liable for damages if sued successfully by parents, meaning no taxpayer money can be used either in their defense or to pay judgments, Unz said.