Duval school infrastructure tax vote stalls in Council Committee

Jacksonville, FL — A vote allowing you to decide on a sales tax to address Duval school infrastructure needs got some early approval Tuesday, but has now been deferred for action by the incoming City Council instead.

“Great idea, I’m all in support of fixing the schools, but it’s just not a fully baked plan yet,” says outgoing Councilman Bill Gulliford.

In early May, the Duval County School Board approved putting a half-cent sales tax on a ballot for you to vote on, with the proposed election date November 5th, 2019. The money would be used to support a nearly $2 billion infrastructure plan to address Duval County's aging schools, through renovations, reconstructions, and consolidations.

FULL DETAILS: Duval Superintendent puts forward Facilities Master Plan

Because of the structure of government in Duval County, the Office Of General Counsel opined that the Jacksonville City Council needs to approve putting that question on a ballot. Many Council members have openly disagreed with the OGC interpretation, believing that it should have basically been a pass through vote and not an actual deliberation, but since the issue is before them, they want to see it through fully.

“The General Counsel brought it to us, and now it’s in our lap, and we should do everything we can to make sure the citizens understand exactly what’s on the ballot,” says outgoing Councilman Matt Schellenberg.

As the action moved to the City Council, some members immediately raised a range of concerns, including that they wanted more specific details on the plan, were concerned about the cost of the election, and didn't believe the turnout for a single-issue election would be sufficient for an issue of this magnitude. Tuesday was the first true public vetting of the action, as the City Council Finance Committee and Rules Committee took up the matter for discussion.

To address their early concerns, the City Council Finance Committee amended the DCPS proposal to push the date of the referendum to November 3rd, 2020, which is the General Election that also includes the vote for President. Not only would does that mean the cost and turnout issues are off the table, but some on the Committee believed it would also offer the District the time they need to make their full case to the public.

“Get plenty of time to vet this, so the public will know exactly what they’re voting on,” says outgoing Councilman Jim Love.

The Finance Committee also voted to add another level of oversight on this issue, through an advisory panel. The DCPS action already included an oversight committee.

The Finance Committee had considered- but ultimately declined- deferring the action overall until the new City Council is seated in the coming weeks. The Rules Committee differed, however, especially when they agreed as Finance did to defer the date of the ballot to next year.

“There is no longer an absolute deadline that this bill pass out of Council next week, and there is no reason that I can think of that we should not hear from the newly elected incoming Council members,” says outgoing Councilwoman Lori Boyer.

The deferral- which the Rules Committee approved- means it will be at least another month before the Council could take up the action for a final decision.

“To continue to kick this down the road will continue to have the School District incur millions of dollars to continue to try to maintain our schools, and it will get to the point that we will have to do consolidations, and just have students in less-older buildings,” says Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene.

Greene, School Board members, and a District finance leader were on hand to address the questions that the Committee members say they wanted to get answered, although very few were directed at the DCPS reps. The Committee raised some concerns about how exactly all the funding mechanisms would work under the proposal, including the impact on credit and bond ratings, but ultimately did not bring forward the finance rep for answers. Greene says that information will all be laid out to the School Board as well on Wednesday, and that Board will likely vote on the final Facilities Master Plan in early July.

“The question before us isn’t ‘what’s the plan’, the question is ‘will the City Council of Jacksonville allow the voters to decide’,” says School Board Chair Lori Hershey.

And to the Committee members who contended they haven’t been able to get the information they’re looking for, one Council member pushed back.

“When we talk about what we should do and what we should know, part of that is making that extra effort,” says Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, who spoke about attending several community meetings and a School Board meeting, as the sales tax issue was taken up by that body.

Despite that pushback, the deferral won out, meaning the issue will not be voted on by the Council next week, and will instead be tackled by the new Council, once the recently-elected members are seated. If that body approves the referendum, then you will ultimately have the final say on the matter, by voting on whether you approve paying a new half-cent sales tax to support the infrastructure plan.

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