“Historic”: Duval School Board moves forward with new tax for school infrastructure

Jacksonville, FL — You could soon decide whether to pay a new sales tax, in order to boost Duval County schools.

The Duval County Public School District says they have nearly $2 billion in infrastructure work needed across the District, and Tuesday night, the School Board decided a sales tax is the best way to support that bill.

“Today is historic. It’s historic because we’re daring to do what has not been done before. Today draws a line in the sand that allows us as a community to decide if we will invest in public education like our surrounding counties have decided to do. Today marks the beginning of a new hope and new direction for Duval County Public Schools, and we get to determine what that future looks like,” says School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey.

The Board approved a resolution that authorizes a new half-cent sales tax to be in effect for 15 years. DCPS estimates that would bring in about $80 million each year, or $1.2 billion over the life of the tax. The money would be earmarked specifically for school infrastructure, including renovating or rebuilding schools, acquiring land, adding safety and security measures, and improving technology. The resolution also creates an independent oversight committee to oversee the implementation of the capital outlay plan that the revenue funds.

The Board approval does not guarantee the tax goes in to effect, though.

While the Board has the authority to levy a tax, Duval County voters must now approve it, for it to take effect. The resolution calls for a special election on November 5th, where this matter would appear on the ballot. If Duval County voters approve, the tax itself would take effect January 1, 2020, per the resolution.

But there’s actually no guarantee the election takes place at all.

The Jacksonville City Council is the governing body that first has to authorize putting the tax referendum on a ballot. The Office of General Counsel has also opined that, not only does the City Council have discretion to determine if the matter should get on a ballot, they have the ability to determine the date and type of election as well.

“It is not the desire of this Board to enter in to an adversarial relationship with another elected body. Rather, we want this to be an opportunity for us to work together in doing what is best for children in our community,” Hershey says.

The School Board is seeking an election November 5th from 7AM through 7PM, in addition to mail ballots. The School District estimates the election would cost between $700,000 and $1.4 million, depending on whether mail and early voting is authorized- if an election takes place at all.

In order to be a “good community partner”, Hershey pointed out that they’re also having an appraisal done on the DCPS headquarters on the Southbank, because they acknowledge public buildings have been moving away from Riverfront property, like what DCPS has. She says there are benefits to where they are- including that they don’t have to pay to occupy the building- but they are open to conversations about changing that, if it’s in the best interest of the District and taxpayers.

Ahead of the referendum, the biggest task the School District still needs to tackle is finalizing the capital plan itself. A concept has been put forward mapping out the proposals for which schools would be renovated, rebuilt on site, moved, or even consolidated. The Superintendent is now carrying out another round of community meetings targeting some of the initial proposals that got the most pushback- consolidating Raines High with its feeder school Northwestern Middle, and Ribault High with its feeder school Ribault Middle. Several Raines alums spoke out in favor of improving schools, but against the proposal again during the School Board meeting Tuesday night, specifically raising safety concerns and asking for the high school campus to be renovated instead of consolidated.

There was some concern raised on the Board itself as well. District 6 Board Member Charlotte Joyce was the only one who voted against the resolution, saying she feels like they’re rushing. She wants to see the capital plan finalized first, and specifically how that addresses some concerns in her District, like whether enough seats are being added to meet growth. She also wants to have some form of auditing done on District spending.

“With these issues addressed in some fashion, I would be happy to consider and take my constituents a plan to improve our facilities. But until then, I am afraid we put the cart before the horse,” she says.

The District continues to seek feedback on the capital outlay proposal, so it has not yet been finalized. DCPS says the Board will ultimately have to approve the final plan before the referendum- if it takes place- so that voters know what they would be funding. Some Board Members acknowledged the concern of not having the plan done, but said waiting until then is not the right move.

“We can’t do anything to take care of the schools we have, let alone create anything new or renovate, without another revenue stream. This is math. It’s pretty simple math,” says District 2 Board Member Elizabeth Anderson.

“Growth is not paying for itself,” says District 3 Board Member Ashley Smith Juarez.

Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene says the District spends nearly $500,000 each month just on school maintenance. The facilities are the oldest in the state, according to DCPS, and that can hurt their ability to recruit and retain teacher talent.

“We can attract teachers to our School District, but as I tell everyone, before they ever meet one student, they see that building first. And they make decisions about whether they want to teach in that building,” Greene says.

Others on the School Board went even further in their push for action, saying the status quo would not be sustainable.

“The question came up- what if we don’t get this money? And I think the reality of that question came about, and that reality was, well, some schools will have to close down, we’ll have to make tough choices. And I think this decision right now is a tough choice, but I’m in favor of this because of that. I think we have a lot to gain from this,” says District 4 Board Member Darryl Willie.

The revenue from this tax would also go toward safety and security improvements across the District, and enhancing technology in the classroom. Greene says some students in the District don’t have access to WiFi or their own laptop, so the District has to ensure they get access to this type of technology and other learning tools while they’re at school.

“It’s not about what we want, it’s what the students need and deserve,” says Board Vice Chair Warren Jones.

And as the focus now moves to lobbying the Jacksonville City Council to get this initiative on a ballot for you to make the final call, some Board Members are raising the prospect of this not being the last pocketbook issue the Board should face.

“Our District and our people who do what they do every single day, really deserve the opportunity to have a salary that is really something that they should be proud of,” says District 1 Board Member Cheryl Grymes.

Grymes says she thinks the Board should discuss a property tax proposal to support teacher and employee pay, although there was no clear indication how soon she hoped to take that on.

Hershey says she has had some positive initial response from some members of the City Council, although she didn’t give specific details. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry tweeted Tuesday night broadly criticizing prior tax efforts.

We asked the City whether the Mayor supports allowing this infrastructure tax measure on a ballot, and a Spokesperson says he doesn’t have any comment at this time.

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