State Legislation: Charter Schools move to skirt environmental laws, burden school districts

state capitolThe California Charter School Association is attempting to lobby a new bill through the state legislature that would require school districts to approve charter zoning exemptions, even if the charter school was a danger to the environment or surrounding community.  CCSA’s well funded lobby wing is trying to push the deeply flawed bill through the Education and Local Government committees even though the bill endangers local school districts.  The bill is a reaction to the lawsuit filed by community members and San Jose Unified to stop the Tamien Rocketship project in downtown San Jose.  Community member Brett Bymaster and San Jose Unified filed suit against Rocketship and the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) when the SCCOE approved a zoning exemption for the Rocketship Tamien site.  This website was launched as a result of the plan to add a Rocketship at the Tamien train station, the third Rocketship within 4 blocks of a downtown San Jose public school, Washington Elementary.  The judge ruled that local school districts (like San Jose Unified) and local municipalities have the right to provide a zoning exemption to charter schools, but county offices of education do not.  The case is being appealed by Rocketship and the County Office of Education even though Rocketship has dropped the Tamien site, where a park is currently being constructed by the City of San Jose.

The proposed legislation would explicitly allow county offices of education to approve charter school zoning exemptions, something that according to the judge is not currently legal.  But the proposed legislation would do much more than that.

The bill would require local districts to approve zoning exemptions for charters within 60 days if 1) the charter is in the district, 2) the charter has a lease, and 3) the charter pays a reasonable fee, not to exceed $500, 4) the charter does not endanger the health & safety of the charter’s students.  It does not provide a provision for a local board to deny a charter zoning exemption on the basis of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and does not require the charter to go through the CEQA process.  Since the local board would provide the exemption, the liability risk would be on the local district, but there’s no provision for the district to indemnify themselves.  If a local board does not respond within 60 days, the charter can go to the county and then the state, but the law seems to require the state to be responsive if the 4 requirements above are met.  The local board could deny the charter if it endangered students.  But if it endangered neighbors or produced unmitigated environmental impacts to the neighboring community, then the local school district would be legally liable for those impacts without remedy.

The deeply flawed bill would hurt communities because local municipalities and school districts would be stripped of their ability to do even basic city planning.  It could also have significant environmental impacts, as school districts could be forced to approve schools that do not meet basic environmental standards (which includes noise, traffic and community impacts).  But most importantly, this bill could bankrupt local school districts that would be required to pay for the CEQA analysis, and face huge legal liabilities if they were sued under the CEQA act; the districts –not the charters — could be liable as the zoning exemption approval agency.

The bill is supported by the California Charter School Association and Michelle Rhee’s charter advocacy group, Student’s First.  The bill is opposed by the American Planning Association, California Farm Bureau, California State Association of Counties, California Teachers Association, City of Signal Hill, League of California Cities, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The opposition letter from the California Teacher’s Association is available here.

The bill is being sponsored by San Diego Assemblyman Brian Jones, a republican who lead an effort to prevent undocumented college hopefuls from receiving state assistance through Gov Brown’s 2011 Dream Act.  The California Charter School Association’s Political Action Committee made several financial contributions to Jones’ 2014 assembly run.

You can follow the status of AB1344 and read the text of the bill here.