A California multimillionaire and his Massachusetts supporters announced Tuesday that they have gathered more than 100,000 signatures in their ballot campaign to dismantle the state's system of bilingual education.

"Since we only need 57,000 valid signatures, our measure is virtually certain to be on the November 2002 ballot," said Lincoln Tamayo, a former Chelsea High School principal, who is chairing the petition drive.

The proposal would require children who are not fluent in English be placed in intensive language classes to teach them English within a year. The state's current bilingual program provides for three years of language instruction.

The proposal would also allow bilingual education in a grade where at least 20 parents of children 10 or older requested it.

The ballot initiative was launched in July by Ron Unz, a software entrepreneur and Harvard University graduate, who helped bankroll similar successful ballot initiatives in California and Arizona.

The signatures represent a major hurdle in the group's push to get the issue on the Massachusetts ballot.

Once the required number of signatures are certified, the petition goes to the state Legislature. If it is not adopted by April 30, the group has until July 3 to collect another 9,517 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

However, opponents have promised a stiff fight. They contend the state's 30-year-old bilingual education system, the nation's oldest, should be improved, not discarded, and say it takes more than a year to learn a foreign language.

Tamayo, who immigrated to America before beginning kindergarten, said he's pushing the measure because he "handed out too many diplomas to students who couldn't defend themselves in English" when he was a high school principal.

"I see nothing anti-immigrant at all about this initiative," he said. "We're providing immigrant children the most important tool to succeed in this country."