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.”