Jacksonville, FL - Saying they still have a range of questions that haven’t been answered, two Jacksonville City Council committees have deferred action on a School Board plan to put a half-cent sales tax on a ballot for you to decide. It’s the second time this action has been deferred at the Committee level, so the measure has not yet made it to the full City Council for a final vote.
“I pray that the City Council can break those chains that are holding you hostage and preventing you from doing what is right and fair for all of our students, and most of all, for those who- by choice- have chosen traditional public schools,” says School Board Vice Chair Warren Jones, who spoke during public comment at the Rules Committee.
Since early 2017, the Duval County Public School District has studied the condition of the schools, which led to the assembly of a Master Facilities Plan that details nearly $2 billion in work needed across the District, including repairing, rebuilding, and replacing schools- some of which are among the oldest in the state. Through that process, they held community meetings and took in feedback to alter the plan. In May, the School Board passed a resolution to have you vote on a half-cent sales tax for 15 years, which would fund this master plan. They proposed that special election take place this November, with the School District covering the cost of the election.
The School Board cannot in itself put a measure on a ballot for you, though- that falls on the City Council. Jacksonville’s General Counsel issued a memorandum saying he believes the City Council does not have to simply pass through the measure, and can instead exercise discretion.
“At the end of the day, I want to come together on this. I want us to get to a place where we can get this to a vote, because we need it. Our kids need it. Our community deserves it. And for us to be the city that we want to be, this has to happen,” says School Board member Darryl Willie, who spoke during public comment at the Finance Committee.
City Council members started debating the referendum a few weeks ago, and while the Finance Committee passed it through with some changes at that time, the Rules Committee decided to defer the vote until new, incoming City Council members could be seated. Tuesday marked the first time those committees met with the new members installed, and both panels ultimately decided to again defer a vote.
“I understand how public schools, the challenges public schools face. And I also understand the duty that we have as a legislative body, to debate and to talk about and fully vet everything that comes before us that we’re required to vote on. A legislative body can’t be directed to vote one way or another, nor can an executive be directed to vote or to approve something or disapprove something,” says Finance Committee Vice Chair LeAnna Cumber.
Among the questions raised by these Council members was, once again, the timing. The referendum must be preceded by a state audit, and the Supervisor of Elections must have enough time to prepare- and that’s now a very tight window ahead of a November 2019 vote. Turnout is also expected to be much lower for a special election. Many Council members have discussed at length wanting to see this matter on the General Election ballot next year instead, although there was no conclusive action taken in that regard Tuesday.
Some of the questions about the plan itself deal with the accuracy of enrollment projections and balance with charter schools. The District says public schools need capital funding, because the state has drastically cut that line, and instead put it to charter schools. They say other school districts have invoked taxing authorities to make up for the drop in state funding, and Duval needs to as well.
“I can’t give my thumbs up, I can’t move this personally forward, until we have an absolute guarantee in writing of a requirement to share this money with public charter schools,” says Rules Committee Vice Chair Rory Diamond.
Other Council members wanted more specific details about the timeline of construction, including which schools would be tackled first and how quickly that work would take place.
“Our community deserves to know exactly the what, the when, and the how,” says Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who sits on both committees.
While Finance Committee members raised these questions, they did not actually call up anyone from the District to address their concerns. That was a big point of contention for Councilman Matt Carlucci, who attended that meeting, although he is not on that committee.
“It’s so easy to find reasons not to move forward, but it takes courage to move forward. These are our children. We want these campuses hardened, secured, as quickly as possible,” he says.
During Rules, Carlucci did call up Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene, which led to several other Council members questioning her as well. Greene reiterated the community meetings and outreach they’ve already done, talked about enrollment projections for traditional and charter schools alike, and explained the data-driven way they came up with the plan. She says they’re in the process of prioritizing which construction projects would take place first, but noted that safety and security needs at every school would be done within the first few years of the plan, regardless of the state of repair.
Through the day, Councilmen also raised questions about the impact a tax measure could have on the City credit rating and the mechanism for monitoring the project. Finance Committee Chair Aaron Bowman even put out the idea that DCPS partner with private developers to have them build schools that DCPS can then lease.
Finance unanimously passed the deferral, but there were two no votes in Rules- Carlucci and Rules Committee Chair Joyce Morgan.
“I just still have fundamental issues with one elected body telling another elected body ‘You cannot put this on the ballot’,” Morgan says.
She says the School Board was elected separate from the City Council, so it’s their responsibility to address school policy, and the City Council getting in the way of that is effectively blocking them from doing their jobs. While that was said by a few others, it was not unanimous. Finance Committee member Ron Salem, earlier in the day, had raised some policy specific questions dealing with charter schools, which he said he needs to have answered before he’s comfortable voting on this plan.
Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson told the Rules Committee that she did not want to see the deferral, but faced the reality that- given the temperature of the other Council members- it didn’t seem like the bill would have support to pass right now, and voting it down would mean a year before the measure could come back up. Bowman questioned if there would even be a second attempt.
“If this goes to the voters and fails, it’s not coming back. We’ve got one chance to do this right, one chance to get it approved, one chance to convince the voters that this is the right thing to do, and we’ve got a concrete plan that has been vetted and is supported by this entire community. And we’re not there right now,” Bowman says.
Still others overtly said they will likely support funding the School District needs, when the information is in and the time is right.
“I unequivocally support a dedicated revenue stream for our school system. It’s unconscionable that we don’t have one,” Rules Committee member Michael Boylan says.
“I understand the needs, I am for the referendum, there’s no question. And I think, in the end- and I can’t speak for everyone- all are going to be for it in the end,” says Finance Committee member Tommy Hazouri.
But that end is not here, according to the lawmakers.
“I do think there’s a majority to get this done. I think there’s a super-majority. I think there’s unanimity, eventually, to solve this problem. But we need a way to get there,” Diamond says.
Council President Scott Wilson said he is exploring holding a joint meeting of the City Council and School Board, in order to go over all of the questions and concerns. He said he is aiming for October, although nothing appears to be set in stone at this time. Ahead of that, he plans to ask City Council members to submit their questions to the General Counsel’s office, to be sent to the School District. Meanwhile, there’s no clear timeline for when the full Council- and then possibly you- will take up this vote.
“I am very disappointed that there cannot be a consensus for 2019 for our children, who we all love, but who have needs as well,” says State Senator Audrey Gibson, who spoke during Finance public comment.
“More delay, more decay,” Carlucci says.
Other School Board members, including Chair Lori Hershey, implored the Council to set a date.