In San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County Office of Education (Jan. 24, 2017, H041088) __Cal.App.5th__ [2017 WL 345136], the California Court of Appeal held that county boards of education do not have legal authority to exempt charter schools from local zoning regulations, concluding that such authority applies only to school districts.
The Santa Clara County Board of Education (“SCCBOE”) approved Rocketship Education (“Rocketship”) as a countywide benefit charter to open and operate up to 25 charter schools within the County. Rocketship proposed to locate one of its charter schools on property (“Property”) owned by the City of San Jose (“City”) that was not zoned for school uses. The Property was located within the San Jose Unified School District (“SJUSD”). Rocketship requested that the SCCBOE take action to exempt the Property from zoning regulations under Government Code section 53094 et seq., which SCCBOE did. SJUSD filed a petition for writ of mandate to invalidate SCCBOE’s action on grounds that county boards of education, unlike school districts, lack the ability to exempt property from local zoning regulations. The trial sided with the District and ordered the SCCBOE to rescind its action. SCCBOE appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order, reasoning that the plain meaning of Government Code section 53094 and its legislative history make clear that county boards of education lack authority to issue zoning exemptions for the siting of charter school facilities.
The Court reasoned that under Government Code section 53094, subdivision (b), only “the governing board of a school district” may issue zoning exemptions. The Court looked to the legislative history of the statute in order to determine whether “school district” should be construed to include a county board of education. The Court concluded that the legislature enacted Government Code section 53094 in response to Hall v. City of Taft (1956) 47 Cal.2d 177 and Town of Atherton v. Superior Court (1958) 159 Cal.App.2d 417 (referred collectively as “Hall and Atherton”). Hall and Atherton held that school districts carry out sovereign activity of the state when constructing school buildings and are not subject to local regulation, only state law and the constitution. Hall and Atherton effectively immunized many state agencies from local regulation, leaving numerous activities entirely unregulated. Rather than pass a law subjecting school districts to local regulation entirely, the Legislature struck a balance by enacting section 53094, consenting to local regulation for local state agencies, but allowing those agencies to issue exemptions under certain conditions.
The Court concluded that while county boards of education may grant charter schools, the Legislature did not task county boards of education with acquiring sites for charter schools. Instead, it is school districts that are obligated to provide facilities under Proposition 39 (Ed. Code, § 47614, subd. (b).) To the extent county boards of education provide facilities, they are not carrying out a sovereign activity on behalf of the State. Thus, application of section 53094 to a county board of education does not advance the statute’s purpose, namely preventing local interference with the State’s sovereign activities.
The growth of charter schools in California has raised many new legal questions about charter school siting, including which local and state governmental entities may or should play a role in addressing where a charter school may locate. The holding in San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County Office of Education, answers an important question, concluding that county boards of education may not exempt charter schools from local zoning requirements.
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