Wednesday, January 25, 2017
C.A. Rules for School District in Fight Over Zoning
Panel Says Statute Does Not Allow County Board to Overrule Local Authorities to Benefit Charter Schools
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A statute allowing local school boards to exempt school projects from local land use laws does not permit county boards to grant such exemptions to charter schools, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The court affirmed a Santa Clara Superior Court judge’s ruling that the Santa Clara County Board of Education had no authority to exempt a proposed charter elementary school from the City of San Jose’s general plan and zoning laws.
At issue was the interpretation of Government Code §53094(b), which authorizes “the governing board of a school district” to “render a city or county zoning ordinance inapplicable to a proposed use of property by the school district,” under certain circumstances. The panel confined its decision to the charter school issue, declining to issue a broader ruling on the powers of county boards.
The litigation was filed by the San Jose Unified School District after the county board approved Rocketship Education’s request for the exemption, which would have allowed it to build the school in the Tamien neighborhood, southwest of downtown San Jose. The area is zoned light industrial, and the general plan describes the site as open space, parklands, and habitat.
Rocketship turned to the county board after the San Jose City Council rejected its efforts at an exemption.
A Tamien resident homeowner, Brett Bymaster, organized neighbors to oppose the school, and brought his own litigation, which was consolidated with the school district’s suit. Bymaster has also opposed Rocketship’s expansion plans in the county and beyond, establishing a website, stoprocketship.com.
Charter Schools Act
Under California’s Charter Schools Act, a school can be chartered by a district school board, a county board of education, or the State Board of Education. Charter schools are entitled to use public facilities and receive funding equivalent to that given public schools.
The Santa Clara County board has reportedly chartered more schools than any other county board in the state, allowing Rocketship to establish 25 schools. County boards, and the county education offices that they oversee, generally function as support agencies for local school districts, such as the 31 districts in Santa Clara County.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Franklin E. Bondonno ruled in March 2014 that SJUSD and Bymaster were entitled to mandamus and declaratory relief. He reasoned that school districts and county boards of education are “tasked with generally different responsibilities” and that if the Legislature intended to give county boards the same powers as district boards with respect to zoning exemptions, it would have done so explicitly.
Justice Franklin Elia said §53094(b) is ambiguous with respect to what is meant by “school district,” but that allowing county boards to override local zoning would be contrary to legislative intent. Section 53094 and related provisions, the justice explained, were enacted in response to a pair of appellate decisions that exempted school construction from local zoning and building regulations. While there was strong support for such exemptions, Elia noted, there was also fear that other government agencies would claim similar authority to ignore local rules.
The legislative solution, he said, was to strike a balance between the state’s interest in education and local government’s interest in controlling land use. Allowing county boards to grant exemptions to charter schools, Elia concluded, would be inconsistent with that solution.
“The state has not tasked county boards of education with acquiring sites for charter schools; to the extent county boards of education do so, they are not carrying out a sovereign activity on behalf of the state. It follows, then, that empowering county boards of education to issue zoning exemptions for charter school facilities does not advance the purpose of section 53094—namely, preventing local interference with the state’s sovereign activities.”
The case is San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County Office of Education (Rocketship Education), 17 S.O.S. 335.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company