On January 24, 2017, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District interpreted Government Code section 53094 and held that, unlike school districts, county boards of education cannot be exempted from local zoning requirements. San Jose Unified School District v. Santa Clara County Office of Education, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2016) (Case No. H041088).

Section 53094 authorizes “the governing board of a school district” to “render a city or county zoning ordinance inapplicable to a proposed use of property by the school district,” under certain circumstances. Through the adoption of section 53094, the legislature intended to forestall local obstruction of state-sanctioned school construction and school location.

Here, the Santa Clara County Office of Education—which provides support services to the County of Santa Clara’s 31 school districts—sought to employ section 53094 in connection with a proposed location for a charter school for low-income students who are below basic proficiency on state exams. The school would be located on property owned by the City of San Jose, but the City’s general plan and zoning ordinance do not allow use of the site for a school. The Office of Education thus adopted a resolution attempting to exempt the proposed charter school from San Jose’s general plan and zoning ordinance under the authority of section 53094.

The San Jose Unified School District responded by filing suit seeking rescission of the resolution and a declaration that only school districts, not county boards of education, are authorized to invoke section 53094. The trial court agreed, ruling that school districts and county boards of education are “tasked with generally different responsibilities” and that given those differences the legislature would have specifically stated an intent “to grant the power to override local zoning to county boards of education.”

The case turned on the meaning of the phrase “the governing board of a school district.” The Office of Education and the charter school contended that this phrase refers to any public agency that operates public schools, including county boards of education. The District maintained that it refers more narrowly to the governing boards of local school districts.

The Court of Appeal determined that the phrase is ambiguous and requires extrinsic aids to resolve. The Court thus considered the legislative history of section 53094 and noted that it does not grant school districts absolute immunity from local control but rather strikes a balance between state educational and local regulatory interests and control. In short, the legislature intended to forestall local obstruction of state-sanctioned school construction and school location by providing school districts limited immunity from local regulation.

The Court further noted that while county boards of education are authorized to issue charters and oversee charter schools, it is only local school districts that are obligated to provide facilities to charter schools. The Court thus reasoned that empowering county boards of education to issue zoning exemptions for charter school facilities does not advance the purpose of section 53094—namely, preventing local interference with the state’s sovereign activities—and held that the section does not authorize county boards of education to issue zoning exemptions for charter school facilities.