Lawsuit targets Rocketship schools in Santa Clara County
Posted: 02/05/2014 San Jose Mercury News By Sharon Noguchi
SAN JOSE — In another blow to the flagging fortunes of Rocketship charter schools, four Santa Clara County school districts on Tuesday filed a lawsuit seeking to rescind the approval of 20 Rocketship schools and prevent the county school board from granting similar requests.
The suit claims that the Santa Clara County Board of Education overstepped its authority in approving petitions for the 20 charter schools in December 2011, and argues that only local school districts can approve them.
“The suit is not an attempt to prevent charter schools in Santa Clara County,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Sue Ann Salmon Evans, said, “but to ensure that local charter schools are authorized in compliance with the law.”
The lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by the Alum Rock, Evergreen, Franklin-McKinley and Mount Pleasant school districts, all K-8 districts on San Jose’s east and southeast side. Some of the 20 schools were slated to be located within their boundaries, as well as in four other local school districts.
Echoing the criticism previously leveled at the county board’s approval of these petitions, the suit maintains that the county board must deny a charter petition unless there is a reason the school could not operate if authorized by a local school district.
The board’s authorization of the charters serves “to usurp the powers and oversight of local school districts … by creating a super-district of charter schools in Santa Clara County,” the suit alleges.
County school board President Leon Beauchman and county Superintendent Xavier De La Torre were not immediately available for comment.
But Preston Smith, co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, said that the organization answered the lawsuit’s allegation when it submitted its petition in 2011. “In addressing the achievement gap, there are pockets of underperforming students in districts countywide, who are difficult to serve in a stand-alone school,” he said. A countywide charter allows a school to serve students in multiple districts, he said.
Four of the 20 schools were scheduled to open next August — two in the Alum Rock District, and two in San Jose Unified — but Rocketship has encountered delays. Now, Rocketship plans to open just one school in San Jose, on North Jackson Avenue in the Alum Rock District. Another school will open in Nashville, Tenn.
In October, Rocketship lost a court challenge over a planned school in the San Jose Unified School District. In that case, the court ruled that the county board did not have the authority to exempt Rocketship from zoning rules. The decision has left that school, planned near the Tamien light-rail station, in limbo. The San Jose City Council failed to muster enough votes to grant Rocketship the needed exemption.
Last month, Rocketship withdrew an application for a charter school in Morgan Hill. After losing in a first-round request to the district board, the organization suddenly pulled its appeal to the county school board.
The suit does not affect five Rocketship schools already operating in the county.
It’s not clear why the suit was filed more than two years after the county board’s controversial charter approval. But Salmon Evans, who is with the Long Beach law firm of Dannis Woliver Kelley, said that “there have been a lot of efforts to try and resolve this issue without going to litigation.”
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.