The Sixth District Court of Appeal recently held in San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County Office of Education (Court of Appeal Case No. H041088, Jan. 24, 2017), that a County Office of Education cannot seek an exemption from local zoning ordinances under Government Code section 53094 because a county board of education is not a "governing board of a school district."

The Santa Clara County Office of Education granted a charter to Rocketship Education ("Rocketship") to operate up to 25 charter elementary schools for low-income students, and students who scored below basic proficiency on state exams. Rocketship proposed to locate one of its elementary schools on City of San Jose property. Unfortunately, use of the property for a school was prohibited by the City's General Plan, which designated the property as open space, parklands, and habitat. Additionally, the property was zoned for light industrial usage. Accordingly, Rocketship requested that the County Office of Education exempt the property from the City's General Plan and zoning ordinance. The County Office of Education obliged and passed a resolution exempting the property from the City's General Plan and zoning ordinance pursuant to Government Code section 53094.

Government Code section 53094 allows a governing board of a school district to render a city or county zoning ordinance inapplicable to a proposed use of a property by a school district for classroom facilities by a two-thirds vote.

The local public school district, San Jose Unified School District, and the adjacent property owner brought separate writs of mandamus seeking rescission of the County Office of Education resolution alleging that only school districts, not county offices of education, have the authority to seek exemptions from local zoning ordinances under Government Code section 53094.

The trial court granted the writ and ordered that the County Office of Education rescind the resolution or take official action denying Rocketship's request for an exemption from the local zoning ordinances. The trial court concluded that school districts and county boards of education are "tasked with generally different responsibilities" and that the Legislature could have, but did not grant the power to override local zoning ordinances to county boards of education.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal was asked to interpret the meaning and intent of the Legislature and interpret Government Code section 53094 to answer the question of whether Government Code section 53094 authorized a county board of education to issue an exemption from local zoning ordinances for a charter school. The County Office of Education alleged that since it was the chartering body and charter schools are part of the California public school system, then Section 53094 applies to any public entity that runs a public school, including a county office of education. The school district countered that Section 53094 clearly states that exemptions from local zoning ordinances can only be sought by governing boards of local school districts of which a county office of education is not.

In analyzing this question, the Court of Appeal found that the phrase "governing board of a school district" in Section 53094 was ambiguous and turned to the legislative history, and the events leading up to the enactment of Section 53094, to determine the Legislative intent. Section 53094 and other statutes were enacted in response to Hall v. City of Taft, 47 Cal.2d 177 (1956), which held that the construction of school buildings were not subject local building regulations, and Town of Atherton v. Superior Court, 159 Cal.App.2d 417 (1958), which held that school districts were not required to comply with municipal zoning regulations when designating a school location. Both cases relied on the premises that public education was a statewide, not a local, concern, and that the state had already regulated school construction through the Office of the State Architect, now called the Division of the State Architect, thereby making local regulations invalid. It is noteworthy that while Section 53094 specifically allows a school district to exempt its school facilities from local zoning ordinances, Government Code section 53091 specifically requires that all local state agencies comply with local zoning ordinances. The Legislation exempted school districts from local zoning ordinances because school district construction was already regulated by the State. In other words, the Legislature did not want local interference with the state's sovereign activities.

In this case, the County Office of Education sought to exempt the location of a charter school from local zoning ordinances. County Offices of Education are authorized to grant charter school petitions, and oversee charter schools, but it is the local school district that must provide the facilities to the charter school. The Court of Appeal reasoned that a County Office of Education is not tasked with acquiring sites for charter schools and if a County Office of Education does so, then it is not carrying out the sovereign activities of the state because it is not empowered to acquire the site for the charter school. Therefore, allowing a county board of education to invoke the zoning exemptions in Section 53094 would not advance the purpose of Section 53094, namely preventing local interference with the state's sovereign activities.

This case is significant in that this is the first time that a court of appeal has addressed the question of whether a county board of education falls within the definition of "governing board of a school district" as it relates to school facilities, and more importantly to charter school facilities. However, we caution that this holding is limited to the specific fact pattern of San Jose Unified School District and may have limited application under other scenarios.