Zoning exemption for Rocketship charter riles local districts

Superintendents and school board members were angry last year when the Santa Clara County Board of Education approved plans for 20 Rocketship Education elementary charter schools over the next six years, in addition to the five county-approved Rocketship schools in the works or already open. Now, many are furious that the county board may assert its power to exempt a Rocketship school from San Jose zoning ordinances.

This wouldn’t be the first time a charter authorizer used its status as a school district  to grant an exemption to a zoning ordinance, although it is rare. Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified each asserted its right to approve a site for a charter school. However, this apparently would mark the first time that a county office of education would use the same authority. Some local districts claim county offices lack the right to tread on their turf, even though land use is a municipal, not a school district, responsibility.

Los Altos School District trustees Mark Goines and Tamara Logan warned of a “dangerous precedent – without consideration of the ramifications to local school districts and communities” in a letter to the county board. “Based on advice from our counsel, there is no legal basis for the County Board to usurp the power from local school districts to issue exemptions from local zoning requirements.”

The county office disagrees; it already used its power as a district to buy a site for a future community day school. And, in this particular case, the city of San Jose not only doesn’t oppose the county school board’s zoning exemption, Mayor Chuck Reed requested that the county board go ahead and do it. For more than two years, Rocketship and the city have been discussing locating the charter school and a new park near a light rail station, with the city using money from the sale of the property to Rocketship to build a soccer field. Rather than go through a zoning change, which could take more than a year, the city recommended that the county board grant the exception, according to Erik Schoennauer, a land-use consultant for Rocketship. As opposed to many charter operators, which rent buildings or use district facilities, Rocketship buys land and builds its schools, an 18- to 24-month process.

Rocketship is a high-performing, rapidly growing K-5 charter organization based in Palo Alto, with plans to start schools in Milwaukee and Nashville in the next few years and invitations to open schools in other urban districts. Serving low-income children and English learners, it has achieved impressive state test scores through a combination of a longer school day, an innovative staffing plan, and individually tailored online learning two hours daily in a computer lab. The Santa Clara County School Board approved the rapid expansion of Rocketship as part of its goal of closing the achievement gap in the county by 2020. Once all 29 schools are open, Rocketship’s 15,000 students would comprise one of the largest districts in the county.

At the request of local districts, the county board agreed to delay its zoning decision until next week. Although the board is likely to approve this request for an exemption, it may also consider conditions and a policy toward future zoning requests. Board president Joseph DiSalvo told me he will insist that the county office work closely with city zoning administrators in all charter sitings. He and board member Anna Song said they favor the county board as the last, not the first, resort for zoning matters.

Schoennauer said that regardless of a zoning exemption, neighbors would have a say over Rocketship’s location. Rocketship must conduct traffic and environmental studies at its expense, under the California Environmental Quality Act, and any public improvements around a site – sidewalks, curb cuts, lighting –  must go through municipal authorities, with neighbor notification.

Locating near low-performing schools

Nonetheless, besides site-specific concerns, the dispute between the county board and districts points to a larger conflict over values. The county board approved the 20 charters with the intention that Rocketship would build schools near low-performing district schools. Rocketship’s co-founders, CEO John Danner and Chief Academic Officer Preston Smith, said they would not locate near schools that achieved an 800 API, the goal set by the state. Districts, on the other hand,  would argue that Rocketship schools will erode the concept of neighborhood schools and undermine districts’ financial stability.

Left unstated is Rocketship’s and the county board’s suspicion that local school boards might use their influence with hometown zoning officials to make it hard for Rocketship to open more schools. Having approved 20 more Rocketships, the county board has an obligation to the children who’d be served to see that Rocketship schools are built, DiSalvo said.

At a hearing last month, county board member Craig Mann dismissed local officials who called for delay and questioned the board’s right to grant a zoning exemption as “obstructionists.”












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11 Responses to “Zoning exemption for Rocketship charter riles local districts”

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  1. Skeptic on Oct 10, 2013 at 7:49 am10/10/2013 7:49 am

    • 000

    @EdSource: time for an update? The County Board eventually adopted the zoning exemption, was then sued by San Jose Unified….and it looks like the Court just sided with the “obstructionists”:



    • John Fensterwald on Oct 10, 2013 at 8:19 am10/10/2013 8:19 am

      • 000

      Thanks for the update, Skeptic.

  2. Replies

    • John Fensterwald on Aug 28, 2012 at 8:27 am08/28/2012 8:27 am

      • 000

      Thanks for pointing out this document, Skeptic.

      • Skeptic on Sep 4, 2012 at 6:50 am09/4/2012 6:50 am

        • 000

        Reading the County Board’s agenda for 9/05, it looks like the County Board recommends delaying any action on its part until after the City of San Jose completes the CEQA analysis (no ETA provided for that analysis).

  3. Navigio on Aug 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm08/27/2012 7:01 pm

    • 000

    It seems wrong the  county could usurp local zoning restrictions, regardless of what the law might have to say. It also seems wrong that a private owner would be able to take advantage of such exemptions only because there might happen to be at school on the property unless there is some guarantee that the property will always be used for education.  And I would have a real problem if more and more properties that house ‘public’ education fall into private hands. 
    Don’t charters now have access to public bond money? And if so can they use that to build a campus that the public will not own?

  4. el on Aug 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm08/27/2012 12:34 pm

    • 000

    It is not clear to me from the article if there is a bona fide zoning concern (for example, are waivers quickly and easily granted to regular public schools? Is the location somehow inappropriate?) or if the issue with the zoning exemption is only to delay the process.

  5. Barry Groves on Aug 27, 2012 at 11:39 am08/27/2012 11:39 am

    • 000

    As a high school district that really does not have a vested interest in Rocketship, we have issue based on our counsel’s opinion that you mentioned in your article that “there is no legal basis for the County Board to usurp the power from local school districts to issue exemptions from local zoning requirements” when it comes to charter schools. I have neither read nor heard the basis for this proposed exemption.


    • John Fensterwald on Aug 27, 2012 at 2:25 pm08/27/2012 2:25 pm

      • 000

      Barry: The agenda for Aug. 14 includes a proposed resolution that the county board was to consider. It includes references to two sections of the Ed Code:
      35160: “the governing board of any school district may initiate and carry on any program, activity, or
      may otherwise act in any manner which is not in conflict with or inconsistent with, or preempted by, any law and which is not in conflict with the purposes for which school districts are established.”
      Also: 35160.2 ” For the purposes of Section 35160, “school district” shall include county superintendents of schools and county boards of education.”

  6. Skeptic on Aug 27, 2012 at 9:13 am08/27/2012 9:13 am

    • 000

    Why didn’t RocketShip use the 2-3 years period to at least start the normal zoning process? RocketShip was told almost a year ago that it was not a school district and therefore didn’t the authority to directly claim a zoning exemption; why wait until this summer to make a request to the County Board of Education?

    re: LAUD, it did grant some exemptions but not before developing a comprehensive policy which could be a good template for the County Board of Education to follow. For example:

    “Legal safeguards are in place to mitigate risk and liability to the District. Charter Schools will be responsible for all costs associated with the District’s execution of a zoning exemption.

    The Charter School Zoning Exemption Policy explicitly provides for an environmental review prior to granting the zoning exemption.”


  7. Charter Questioner on Aug 27, 2012 at 8:20 am08/27/2012 8:20 am

    • 000

    While it may be appropriate for the County Board of Education to grant an exemption, the nearly silent and hurried move to do so does not create confidence in the process.
    If there is no conflict with city zoning, why is an exemption necessary?
    Who is Mayor Chuck Reed trying to bypass in asking the County Board to take this action?
    Why, if discussions have been ongoing for almost 3 years, should the County Board need to make a decision without first establishing guidelines nor creating a legal agreement with Rocketship?
    Is it advisable to provide a zoning exemption to a private 3rd party when neither the school nor the county will hold title to the facility?
    Will the county and its taxpayers be liable in any way for CEQA analysis, safety at the school or community impacts?
    These are certainly reasonable questions to raise even among the most ardent charter supporters. Even the extended window allows only a short time for these answers.

    On the surface, and many times in practice, charter schools can provide a short term positive result, but is dismantling  our system of free, public schools, as is certainly happening, in favor of “me first” choice the best route to high quality education for all?
    At its Aug 15 board meeting, Rocketship was to discuss setting a fixed overhead of 15% and building fee of 20% for each school, 35% of revenues.  It also appeared that the school model would change to increase Learning Lab, mostly computer based, instructional time by 40 minutes each day and reduce teacher staffing to 45 students per teacher.

    Will replacing well-trained teachers who are paid a reasonable, middle-class income with minimally-trained aides who earn poverty level wages best serve our children in the long term?
    Does a company with national aspirations which asks for a “favorable operating/regulatory environment” similar to the tax breaks and other incentives frequently given to relocating corporations really demonstrate the community support needed for truly public schools?
    Is hours of computer training with a low staff good for the emotional growth of children?
    Does the lack of art and music matter?
    Rocketship has shown an ability to succeed in improving student test scores and there are certainly many parents and children who are much happier in Rocketship Schools, but even Rocketship founders admit that it is not a complete solution to improving education.  We must neither throw out the educational experiment of Rocketship nor the successful programs at traditional schools.

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