San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County BOE and Rocketship Education


This case involves a challenge to a county board of education's authority to render a local zoning ordinance inapplicable to a charter school it authorized.

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In July 2012, Rocketship Education ("Rocketship") sought to locate a new charter school in Santa Clara County, specifically in the boundaries of the San Jose Unified School District ("District"). Rocketship applied to its authorizer, the Santa Clara County Board of Education, ("County Board"), in order to obtain an exemption from the current zoning for the site. The County Board relied on Government Code section 53094(b), which states in part that the "governing board of a school district by a two-thirds vote may render a city or a county zoning ordinance inapplicable to a proposed use of property by the school district." Since the term "school district" is not defined in the statute, the County Board relied on the common usage of the term "school district" in those statutes to mean all public agencies operating or overseeing public schools.

The District filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief against the County Board, claiming that it was not a school district under the 53094(b) meaning and as such did not have the authority to override local zoning restrictions. Brett Bymaster filed a similar petition for writ of mandate against the County Board, claiming that Rocketship's new school location would affect the value of his property next to the school site. The trial court consolidated these two cases.

After briefing and oral argument, on April 7, 2014, the trial court issued a statement of decision, agreeing with the District and Bymaster that the term "school district" in the government code did not apply to a county board of education. The County Board and Rocketship appealed, but the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court's definition of "school district." In answering that only school districts may render a zoning ordinance inapplicable for a charter school, the Court of Appeal relied on an erroneous reading of Proposition 39 that only local school districts may provide facilities to charter schools. Further, the court made a sweeping conclusion based upon this erroneous reading, stating that since school districts must provide facilities under Proposition 39, "there is no risk that charter schools will be deprived of adequate facilities as a result of this decision." Rocketship sought review at the California Supreme Court, but it declined the request.

CCSA supported Rocketship's legal efforts at each stage of the litigation. At the appellate court, CCSA filed an Amicus Curiae brief noting that one of the purposes of the Charter Schools Act is to foster competition to improve all public schools. Allowing county boards of education to approve a zoning exemption would help level the playing field for charter schools, furthering the Legislature's goals. Further, in CCSA's letter in support of review at the California Supreme Court, CCSA argued for review because the appellate decision limits the options charter public schools have for accessing school facilities, and because the Court of Appeal improperly assumed that Prop. 39 prevents authorizers other than school districts from assisting charter schools with facilities. CCSA remains concerned that the decision will curtail the growth of charter public schools by placing them solely at the mercy of their competitor school districts for school sites.

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