Tamien Rocketship Charter School Site May Contain High Levels of Toxins

An old industrial lot northeast of the Tamien Caltrain station, slated to house a two-story elementary charter school, contains toxic levels of herbicides, oils and arsenic, according to an environmental report from the city of San Jose.

The Santa Clara County Board of Education at its Wednesday meeting plans to discuss a zoning exemption to allow a new charter school on the former Valley Transportation Authority site at 1197 Lick Ave. in south San Jose. The site measures 25,000-plus square feet.

The Rocketship Tamien Public School—a publicly funded, privately run K-5 campus—would mark the eighth of its kind since the board in 2009 OK’d a plan to build 20 within the county. The school would serve 600 students come 2014, if all goes according to plan.

But San Jose’s Environmental Services Department worries about the site’s safety– it’s zoned for light industrial and parks, not for a school and the soil’s contaminated with a bunch of toxins from its past life as a railroad track.

“With over 60 years of industrial use, there are concerns that past practices may have impacted the underlying soil and possibly groundwater,” reads a study San Jose Associate Engineer Geoff Blair authored in February 2010. “The potential exists that the cannery operations included the storage and use of hazardous materials, in addition to the already documented former underground storage tank. The former rail spur [where train cars get loaded, unloaded and parked] is also a concern due to historic practices of commonly applying herbicides, oils containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and arsenic for weed control and the possibility of creosote in the rail ties.”

Blair called for another study to more closely examine the contamination. The survey, conducted by Cornerstone Environmental Group in 2010, found soil concentrations of petroleum combustion chemicals—pretty much the same found in car pollution—about seven times higher than acceptable for residential areas.

Asbestos showed up in six of seven samples in the study, way above the state’s recommended levels for school sites. One sample surpassed the safe-for-schools benchmark by more than 700 percent, according to a 1,138-page bundle of lab reports and other analysis from the Cornerstone investigation.

Still, three years after the study, San Jose’s City Council and Planning Commission approved the project’s environmental review earlier this month. Now’s it’s back to the county Board of Education for a decision. Trustee Anna Song still worries about those soil tests and placed them on the list of public correspondence up for review at Wednesday’s meeting.

The city encouraged the county board to grant the zoning exemption instead of trudging through the yearlong process of having to update San Jose’s general plan.

Neighbors of the next Rocketship site say they worry about the traffic congestion and the sound of hundreds of kids a new school would bring. Rocketship offered to ease some of the pain by teaming up with the city to create an adjacent park, playground half basketball court, and parking lot and shad structure.

The previous seven Rocketship charters met with next to no opposition. The Rocketship chain, founded by Silicon Valley teacher-turned entrepreneur John Danner, is using this region as a launch pad for national expansion. A USA Today article published last fall says Danner plans to grow his organization into 50 cities and 2,000 campuses. Once it’s built out as planned, its 15,000 students would make Rocketship the largest school district in the county, according to Ed Source.

Trustees, at least most of them, have offered their support for the project, touting the Rocketship model as an effective way to learn, as evidenced by its students’ high standardized test scores and goals to narrow the achievement gap.

Also on the Santa Clara County Board of Education agenda for January, 23, 2013:

• Trustees will meet in closed session to discuss a potential special election over Trustee Darcie Green’s seat.
• A $99,000 contract with the Law Offices of Lou Lozano is being upped another $30,000, pending board’s approval. That brings the total spent on Lozano in the past fiscal year to about $315,000. Considering Lozano’s firm provided bad advice on the appointment of Green, this topic could get fiery.
• A contract with the Pacific Autism Center for Education expired, so the district plans to renew it for $1.4 million. The funds will come from next fiscal year’s special education budget.
• Magnolia Science Academy, a 532-student, sixth-through-ninth-grade charter school in Santa Clara, wants to renew its charter but says the state’s budget crisis means it can’t build two other campuses as planned. The county Office of Education says it also worries about the charter chain’s financial accounts, which show negative cash flow.
• The county’s Early Learning Services Department says it plans to team up with San Benito County to pursue a $22.5 million state grant to serve 2,268 preschoolers and 88 toddlers.
• The Social Service Agency will grant $27,882 to the county Office of Education to reimburse for the cost of processing paperwork for children in foster care.

WHAT: Santa Clara County Board of Education meeting
WHEN: 7pm Wednesday
WHERE: 1290 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose
INFO: 408.453.6540 or http://www.sccoe.org

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


  1. Sounds alot like Watson dog park debacle.  Who can forget that.  I am sure the surrounding community garden’s bountiful produce was always a healthy choice.  I am so glad SJ Inside stays on top of these things.  If only more people read it!  I predict the school will be built, countless millions spent, then never be used.

  2. What the eff? Who in the hell decided on this location for a K-to-5th grade school?(when you don’t count the districts councilmember who is living west in Willow Glen, who only seems to propagate enthusiastically for- but always tends to shun our public schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *