SAN JOSE -- The passions driving and opposing charter schools will collide in public this month as Rocketship Education tries to move closer toward opening another elementary school in San Jose.
On Jan. 8, the San Jose City Council will consider allowing a school on 3.5 acres next to the Tamien light-rail station at 1178 Lick Ave. The council also will consider declaring that the school will cause no significant environmental impacts.
The next day, the city planning commission will decide whether the school fits in with city plans for the site. If it passes those hurdles, the school will seek a zoning exemption on Jan. 23 from the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
The crux of the debate is whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate free from most provisions of the state Education Code, need to follow local planning rules. Charter operators say they deserve the special consideration ¿that school districts get; opponents disagree.
Last fall, Rocketship won permission from the county school board to open 20 more elementary schools in Santa Clara County, in addition to seven it already operates in San Jose, all targeting underserved poor and immigrant children.
The charter organization has been negotiating for three years with the city of San Jose over the vacant Tamien parcel. Under the plan, Rocketship would purchase part of the land -- which the city bought from the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority for about $4.5 million as a potential park -- and build classrooms and also a public playground and parking lot for use outside school hours. The city would create a soccer field, which could be maintained with money from the sale of the land.
To do that, Rocketship needs an exemption from local zoning rules, which designate the land for light industry.
As it has in previous battles to open schools, Rocketship cites the dire educational need as an argument trumping all other concerns.
"I think it's really important for us to be able to serve the demand that's in this area and will be coming" in the future, said Jessica Garcia-Kohl, Rocketship's director of community development. "We believe these is a need for this."
Neighbors say not so fast.
They dispute the claim of a negligible environmental impact. They find fault with traffic studies, which they say rely too heavily on Rocketship's own studies. They say that a school runs counter to ¿the city's own vision for the site.
Tamien neighbors were promised a park if they would accept a high-rise condominium development several years ago, residents Brett and Angela Bymaster said. They said their councilman, Sam Liccardo, promised the park again with the Rocketship school. But the school's design has changed, and the park again receded. "It's bait and switch every time," Brett Bymaster said.
A petition signed by parents at a nearby Rocketship school, Mateo Sheedy, pleads for a middle school instead of an elementary school on the site. Tamien Neighborhood Association Tony Traback agrees that a middle school and a park are the neighborhood's priority.
Garcia-Kohl said there's room and demand for both an elementary and a middle school in the area.
Rocketship will bring its big guns to the meetings next week. As it does when political decisions are at stake, it will bus in parents and children from its schools to the meetings. It, too, has a petition, signed by more than 1,000 residents in the downtown-Willow Glen area and by Rocketship parents, urging approval. Garcia-Kohl said residents not only want another educational option, they also hope the development will drive away the prostitution, transients and dumped garbage that plague the neighborhood.
Mayor Chuck Reed is on record supporting Rocketship. Liccardo did too, until he recused himself because he's engaged to Garcia-Kohl.
At the heart of opponents' concern is the worry that another Rocketship school will doom their neighborhood school, San Jose Unified's Washington Elementary. Charters, they say, skim off the highest-achieving students and most-attentive parents, leaving regular public schools with the most struggling, hardest-to-educate students and least-involved parents.
The San Jose Unified Board of Education opposes Rocketship's quest for exemptions, as do dozens of board members from other school districts.
Garcia-Kohl downplays the threat to existing public schools. Washington, she said, is a successful school. "Parents will want to continue to send their children there."
Instead, she said, the decision is about choice. Rocketship schools have long waiting lists. "We need multiple schools in this area. As long as the demand is significant, outweighing supply of schools, parents don't have choice."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.