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The Santa Clara County Board of Education meets regarding Rocketship Education's petition to open a new school during a board meeting at the Santa Clara County Office of Education San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Staff)

SAN JOSE -- Anxious about its ability to plan where to locate schools, the San Jose Unified School District plans to sue the Santa Clara County Board of Education for allowing Rocketship Education to build a K-5 charter school next to the Tamien light rail station in San Jose.

San Jose Unified officials emphasized that the suit is not intended to halt charter schools in general or Rocketship, which runs seven charter elementary schools in San Jose, in particular.

"It's really not about charters," said San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews, a former charter school administrator. "It's about the county making a decision that we don't believe they have the authority to make."

Matthews said the suit, which was authorized by the district's board on Thursday, will be filed this week.

Last summer, superintendents of 19 school districts in Santa Clara County signed a letter agreeing with San Jose Unified's contention that the county Board of Education lacks the authority to exempt Rocketship Education from city zoning requirements. That power is vested only in school districts, they argue.

Jessica Garcia-Kohl, Rocketship's director of community development, called the decision to sue "unfortunate."

Rocketship cited its high-scoring schools, overwhelming demand from parents and urgency to improve education as reasons to support its position. Last month, the county school board granted an exemption to the industrial zoning on a 1.4-acre parcel in Tamien, south of downtown San Jose, to allow the nonprofit organization to build Rocketship 8 school. That campus is one of 20 charter schools that the county board has granted Rocketship Education permission to open.

Rocketship argues that low-income students need the option to attend its high-performing schools, rather than be consigned to low-scoring neighborhood schools.

But neighbors of the Tamien site have argued that Rocketship locating in their neighborhood will weaken the closest elementary school, Washington, which has posted steady gains in test scores and has strong community support.

The lawsuit is likely to delay construction on Rocketship 8, which had been expected to open in August. Yet Rocketship has another option. It has filed a request with San Jose Unified for accommodations for the school.

California law allows charter operators to request space from school districts, which must respond with offers of classrooms comparable to what regular public schools have. The district has preliminarily offered Rocketship rooms at one school, which Garcia-Kohls said "is not a prime option for us."

Grace Mah, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, said the lawsuit doesn't come as a surprise. However, she said, "we feel we've been abiding by and following through on the law to do a zoning exemption."

The suit will seek to have the decision nullified.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.