SAN JOSE -- The City Council narrowly voted Tuesday to approve a Rocketship Education charter elementary school on 3.5 acres next to the Tamien light-rail station over objections from some neighbors who argued it would create too much traffic and that the area doesn't need another elementary school.
Mayor Chuck Reed said the proposal would deliver a new school serving 600 students run by Rocketship, which operates seven other schools in San Jose, all targeting underserved poor and immigrant children, and help close the "achievement gap" between those students and their affluent peers. He also said it will provide a park and playground long planned for the area.
"We have an opportunity to get an elementary school and a park," Reed said during the three-hour debate. "If we are going to close the achievement gap, we have to be aggressive and take advantage of opportunities such as we have before us today."
The school plan passed 6-4 with council members Ash Kalra, Kansen Chu, Don Rocha and Xavier Campos opposed. Councilman Sam Liccardo had to recuse himself because his fiancee works for Rocketship.
"We could do better," Campos said. "It just feels like we're getting the short end out of it."
The proposed school still has other hurdles to leap. The city planning commission on Wednesday is scheduled to decide whether the school fits in with city plans for the site. And the school also must secure a zoning exemption on Jan. 23
But San Jose's approval was a key step. Under the city deal, Rocketship will buy the land at 1178 Lick Ave. from the city for $850,000 based on fair market value. The school will build a playground and parking area at no cost to the city and maintain it for 33 years and pay $1.5 million toward development of public park land on the rest of the property that would include a soccer field.
Critics said the area really needs a middle school, and feared the city was downplaying traffic problems that would result at that site.
"We want a win for everybody," said Brett Bymaster.
Councilman Johnny Khamis said there was no apparent interest in putting a middle school on the site and that if the city didn't approve the Rocketship deal there would be nothing there but an empty field.
The council also accepted a city audit that recommended ending or restricting the "bumping" that occurs in seniority-based layoffs under the civil service system. The council voted 6-5 to accept the report. Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and council members Rocha, Chu, Campos and Kalra dissented because they favored Rocha's proposal to also ask management to update its performance review standards so they're consistent and reliable. City Manager Debra Figone agreed with the audit recommendations but suggested there are higher priorities in upcoming labor talks.
The audit noted San Jose has cut its workforce from about 7,500 to 5,400 and laid off 337 employees, nearly all in the past three years as employee pay and benefit costs outpaced revenues weakened by recessions.
Civil service rules in San Jose and other government agencies call for layoffs to be based strictly on seniority. Longtime employees whose jobs are cut can "bump" more recent hires from similar positions.
The civil service rules replaced a 19th-century patronage system of awarding jobs by political allegiance. But the audit argued the bumping created much turmoil in San Jose, with more than 900 workers bumped once, more than 300 bumped twice and 67 displaced three or more times. The report suggested letting employees bump less senior colleagues only within their departments rather than allowing them to displace workers in other departments.
The council also unanimously approved a pilot program to allow some public parking space to be replaced with planters, trees, tables, chairs or fountains, among other amenities, to create a more inviting atmosphere along certain streets.
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.