SAN JOSE -- Rocketship Education, which has opened nine public elementary schools in seven years, may find its lightning-speed velocity forced to decelerate.
Change in public education comes slowly, but Rocketship has hoped to speed growth by shortcutting planning processes. In one move, it sought and won permission to open 20 schools, rather than submitting one-by-one applications. And it persuaded the Santa Clara County Board of Education to grant it an exemption from city zoning codes to build a school on land slated for light-industrial uses next to the Tamien Light Rail station in south-central San Jose.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Franklin Bondonno indicated that he believes the county board -- unlike boards of school districts -- lacks authority to exempt schools from zoning rules. In a tentative decision, Bondonno wrote, "If the Legislature had intended to grant the power to override local zoning to county boards of education, the Legislature would have so stated. It has not done so."
The judge is expected to issue a final ruling on the suit, filed by San Jose Unified School District and neighbor Brett Bymaster, by early November.
"We're disappointed with the outcome," said Grace Mah, president of the county board of education. She noted that future Rocketship schools could hinge on the county board's ability to exempt them from zoning ordinances. "Without that, it's going to be a tougher row to hoe."
Rocketship seeks to open its schools in areas with low-income, immigrant students attending under-performing public schools. Its seven schools in San Jose have scored well on state standardized tests, and the group reports having 2,500 students on its waiting list.
Most charter schools -- which are publicly funded but operate independent of elected boards of education and freed from most requirements of California's voluminous Education Code -- secure their sites from the school district where they operate. But Rocketship runs on a different model, quickly erecting classrooms on vacant sites.
That is what it envisions doing at the Tamien land.
Whether that happens now depends on the San Jose City Council, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday to permit Rocketship to build on the 1.4-acre city-owned site. The council will weigh whether to rezone the parcel, formerly home to a cannery, to permit a school.
Mayor Chuck Reed supports the rezoning, but the council appears to be split. Both Rocketship supporters and detractors -- some critical of the charter operator and some of charters in general -- have furiously lobbied council members.
Neighbors fearful of traffic and of competition to nearby Washington Elementary School have complained that they lack representation because their councilman, Sam Liccardo, has recused himself from the debate and vote because he is married to Rocketship Bay Area director of community development Jessica Garcia-Kohl.
If the ruling stands, Garcia-Kohl said, it "will have obvious impacts on Rocketship's ability to serve the students currently on the wait list ... and fulfill our organizational purpose of closing the achievement gap within our lifetimes."
The achievement gap is the difference in academic performance separating high-scoring white and Asian students from lower-scoring black and Latino students.
Bymaster, a Tamien resident whose lawsuit was combined with San Jose Unified's, said, "We are pleased that the court has ruled on the common-sense side of the community." In addition, "adding a third Rocketship to our tiny eight-block community is inappropriate."
San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews said San Jose Unified does not object to charter school growth but to a county school board exercising powers it doesn't have. He said, "It's important that school sites are thoughtfully planned in our communities by educators, parents, community members and city leaders."
Conflicts between school districts and charters have played out in various arenas.
In Sunnyvale, the charter organization Summit Public Schools this year opened Summit Denali, which eventually will be a grade 6-12 school, in a building near Lawrence and Central expressways that's designated for light industrial use.
"We exempted ourselves from the zoning," Summit CEO Diane Tavenner said.
Because schools are prohibited in the zone, the city issued a cease and desist order to Summit. "At this time, the city is considering its options for next steps," city spokeswoman Jennifer Garnett said.
Tavenner criticized Bondonno's proposed ruling on Rocketship, and believes charter operators like Summit have the power to free themselves from zoning rules. She said that "the ruling really has tied the hand of charter schools in a way that we believe is unconstitutional."
Bondonno, in a footnote to his proposed decision, said that the Legislature can revise the law to explicitly permit county boards of education to exempt schools from zoning. He also noted that Rocketship had an alternative, to get its parcel rezoned, but simply wanted a faster way to build its schools.
"This court does not believe," he wrote, "that such expediency justifies a judicial rewriting of the Government Code."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
The Santa Clara County Board of Education will meet from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Saturday, in a study session to discuss guidelines for charter schools. The meeting will be in the board room of the county office of education, 1290 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose.