Education Law Update: Charter school zoning decision upheld by Rhode Island Supreme Court

In City of Woonsocket v. RISE Prep Mayoral Academy et al. (No. 2019-99-Appeal.), the Rhode Island Supreme Court determined that RISE Prep Mayoral Academy (“RISE Prep”), a public charter school, is permitted in a major commercial (C-2) district as a “municipal use” under the City of Woonsocket’s zoning ordinance.

RISE Prep is incorporated as a domestic nonprofit corporation, and to determine RISE Prep’s zoning rights in this case, the court focused on the classification of the school’s operation. The City of Woonsocket (“City”) contended that RISE Prep was a nonprofit education institution serving young children and therefore not allowed within a C-2 district. However, the Court noted that, in addition to its nonprofit status, RISE Prep is organized and operates as “a charter public school.” By law, the Court further noted, charter schools are deemed “public schools,” and that “public schools” fall within the “municipal use” definition under the City’s zoning ordinance.

Accordingly, the Court concluded that, under Woonsocket’s comprehensive zoning plan, RISE Prep, as a public school, could be considered a “municipal use.” As such, RISE Prep could obtain a zoning certificate in a particular zone that otherwise restricted nonprofits serving children.

This decision is based on the particular facts of the case, including Woonsocket’s local ordinances. However, it likely sheds light on the ongoing debate regarding the public nature of charter schools in Rhode Island.

For more information about this decision’s impact on the zoning rights of Rhode Island charter schools, please contact Matthew R. Plain, Timothy J. Groves or your Barton Gilman education attorney at 401-273-7171.

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