More than 200 supporters of the Little Ivy League School who packed the City Council chambers Tuesday night—most of them from Pleasanton's growing Chinese-American population—got what they came for but only after an agonizing two hours of debate over whether they could continue the school's operation at a new location in Hacienda Business Park.
In the end, the council voted 3-2 to grant Little Ivy League a conditional use permit to move its school to a new location and to continue its operation. Voting in favor of the school's petition were Mayor Jennifer Hosterman and council members Cheryl Cook-Kallio and Jerry Thorne.
Councilman Matt Sullivan voted no, at least not until the city's Human Relations Commission and others drafted and then had the council approve city guidelines for tutorial schools of this type that also serve as child care centers.
Councilwoman Cindy McGovern also voted against Little Ivy League's petition, but said she would reconsider once it had a child care license from the state. Citing a brief one-paragraph provision among city regulations, she said research is needed into the kinds of municipal regulations that Pleasanton should have to govern the different type of private schools now in operations.
"We seem to be making up names for schools, such as tutoring school, heritage school and the like," she said. "I have no problem with this school other than that it should be licensed."
School founder and Principal Jennifer Zheng said the school, which has 90 students, has lost its lease on its current facility at 4455 Stoneridge Drive and would be forced to close in June if the city denies its request to move into a 40,000-square-foot converted office building across from Hart Middle School.
The building at 5925 West Las Positas Blvd. is home to the Korean Presbyterian Church, which plans to lease 8,000-square-feet that it isn't using to Little Ivy League.
The school, which opened in 2005, provides tutoring on a variety of English and mathematics subjects but with a special focus on Chinese language and culture. A majority of students are American-born children of Chinese descent as well as children adopted from China as babies and youngsters too young to know the language and Chinese culture.
One mother told the council that her child now recognizes and can write and speak using 300 Chinese characters after just a few months at Little Ivy League, marveling his grandparents on laptop visual phone conversations between his home in Pleasanton and theirs in China.
Little Ivy League received approval of its conditional use application Dec. 10 in a 4-1 vote by the city Planning Commission. However, Planning Commissioner Anne Fox appealed that decision to the council.
Tuesday night, she said other day care and preschool operations in Pleasanton meet the state licensing requirements that include thorough background checks of school administrators and staff. To approve Little Ivy League without these prerequisites would open the city to similar applications that could endanger children.
"There's a similar Chinese school in Dublin with an identical program and that school is licensed," Fox said. "Here in Pleasanton, we have multiple churches with after-school programs as well as preschool programs and they are licensed. If you approve this application, it will be the only church operating an after-school program without a license.
"Our city doesn't have the resources to monitor and check all these facilities," she added. "That's what the state does."
Sullivan urged the council to delay its approval of the school's request for a conditional use permit until more consideration could be given on municipal guidelines for these types of facilities.
"While I am supportive of what you are trying to do and I think it's a great opportunity for kids," Sullivan told Zheng, "I think there are bigger issues and questions here that we need to grapple with. It concerns me that we are setting some kind of precedent here. We're trying to grapple with state regulations that we've never seen before and trying to decide which ones apply."
"So I think this would be good oppportunity for our Human Services Commission to weigh in and set up some guidelines so that we aren't making up rules as we go along.," he added. "I have some specific concerns, such as the number of hours kids could be inside the school with potentially no outdoor time."
But Hosterman said that any concerns over the city's need for more after-school and daycare regulations could come later.
"I am so impressed by this school that Jennifer Zheng and others started in 2005," Hosterman said. "They've done a marvelous job."
"This is a situation where this school has been wildly successful and wildly embraced by the community," she added. "It's grown at a pace where it now requires more space. I can't think of a program that I'd rather see in the city than this one."