Ruling Could Leave Rocketship Charter School near Tamien in Limbo

Rocketship Education, a private charter school chain, stands to lose a legal fight to open another campus on 3.5 acres by the Tamien light-rail station.

A Santa Clara County judge last week issued a tentative ruling that nullifies a Santa Clara County Office of Education decision to grant a zoning exemption to build a third campus in the eight-block community around Washington Elementary School.

Residents of the Washington/Tamien neighborhood convinced San Jose Unified School District to file a lawsuit earlier this year against Rocketship and the county for granting that zoning exemption. The school district argued that the county has no right to bypass local agencies in making land-use decisions, and doing so undermines the authority of the community to plan its own academic future.

The debate centers around whether charter schools—privately run, publicly funded and generally free from the dictates of California’s Education Code—should follow local planning rules.

SJUSD officials have said they’re not against charter schools but oppose the county’s attempt to micromanage development in the district’s jurisdiction.

“This lawsuit is not a statement against the growth of charter schools in the county,” said SJUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, noting that his district approved a Rocketship charter school in 2012 and OK’d the ACE charter middle school the same night it approved the lawsuit. “Rather, we are deeply concerned about the county board exercising the power that it does not have under the law and the impact on both families and the ability of school districts throughout the county to plan their communities.”

Rocketship spokesman Kevin Bechtel says it’s not the company’s practice to comment on pending litigation, but that while the judicial process continues, the school will look for other ways to get land-use approval.

“The county office of education zoning exemption is one of many land-use entitlement options available for public charter schools,” Bechtel explained. “To the extent that the court’s final decision impedes use of this type of zoning exemption, Rocketship has already planned accordingly.”

None of Rocketships’ other school projects planned for fall 2014 openings rely on such a zoning exemption, but the delay with the Tamien site will frustrate families who already put their students on the waitlist, Bechtel said.

Last fall, Rocketship won permission from the county to build more than 20 charters in the region. Seven are already up and running in and around San Jose, all in poor, mostly Latino neighborhoods, like the one around Tamien station.

The charter company has been going back and forth with the city for the past several years over the empty Tamien site, which the city bought from the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority for $4.5 million to build a park. Rocketship proposed buying part of that property to build classrooms, which would give the city cash to install a soccer field, in exchange for the council changing the zoning from light industrial to pave the way for a school campus.

While the court gears up for a final ruling, giving some time for the defendant to file any objections, Rocketship is closing in on an Oct. 22 date with the City Council to see if the city will grant the same exemption it got from the county in January.

Brett Bymaster, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son attended Washington Elementary, said Rocketship has created a lot of discord in the community. More than 500 people sent letters in opposition to the county’s zoning exemption months ago. And about 50 chipped in to build a “Stop Rocketship” website.

The community isn’t against the charter schools, Bymaster said. A lot of them just don’t want that many in the same vicinity.

(H/T The Daily Fetch.)

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

One Comment

  1. Too many schools in the neighborhood?  That website seems like they’re throwing a laundry list of complaints against the wall just to see if any of them stick.  I’m curious to know who’s actually backing the campaign and what their real goal is.

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