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Jax Council members divided on allowing school infrastructure tax vote

Jax Council members divided on allowing school infrastructure tax vote

Jax Council members divided on allowing school infrastructure tax vote
Photo Credit: ActionNewsJax.com

Jacksonville City Hall.

Jax Council members divided on allowing school infrastructure tax vote

The Duval County School Board is moving forward with their push to have you decide whether to pay a new tax to support nearly $2 billion in school infrastructure needs, but there is a big hurdle they still need to overcome before you would vote.

The Jacksonville City Council has to authorize putting the question on a ballot, and they have discretion in not only deciding when the vote should take place, but if it should take place at all. Because of that, WOKV has reached out to everyone on the 19-member governing body, to see where they stand.

So far, the responses are split.

District 1 Councilwoman Joyce Morgan attended Tuesday night’s School Board meeting where the Board approved the tax, and speaking after that, she said she believes the measure should go to voters. District 9 Councilman Garrett Dennis and District 7 Councilman Reggie Gaffney also support putting the measure on a ballot, although Gaffney does want more details on the plan itself.

“I know that the schools in my district, my community needs new schools. They’re the oldest schools in the city,” Gaffney says.

At-Large Group 1 Councilwoman Anna Lopez Brosche is another sitting Council member that’s backing the proposal to put the matter to voters.

“The school system is a critical component of the community’s success in meeting the needs of citizens, and attracting companies to Jacksonville and the city plays a vital role in making sure we are proud of, celebrate, and market all of our schools and not just a select few,” she says.

She did raise a question about the timing of the referendum. The current proposal calls for a special election November 5th, but the City Council does have the ability to change that.

The special election request by the School Board is something that a lot of Council members in opposition to this plan are zeroing in on.

At-Large Group 2 Councilman John Crescimbeni says he doesn’t support the resolution as it stands, because he doesn’t support putting this matter on a single-issue, special election ballot. He says turnout for special elections is generally low, and this is a matter that is better suited for a regularly scheduled election.

District 4 Councilman Scott Wilson also says he doesn’t support the referendum at this time, in part because of the cost of a single-issue special election. The Duval County Public School District estimates the cost of this election to be between $700,000 and $1.4 million, depending on whether mail-in ballots and early voting are also authorized.

Wilson further says he knows schools are in need of repair, but wants more public input and detail about the plan itself. At-Large Group 5 Councilman Sam Newby also says more time needs to go toward exploring the issue.

Council President Aaron Bowman, who represents District 3, thinks there should also be a focus on school system performance, and he questions whether- with the increased emphasis at the state level on supporting charter schools- the student population projections the District is working with will hold true in the coming years.

“This initiative seems to be moving very fast without explaining what options there are, why the taxpayer should approve it, and why it needs to be done now. It is an expense to hold a Special Election that I see as a very tough sell to the population without a campaign to educate and gain support on asking the public to raise their taxes,” Bowman says.

Those are similar concerns raised by District 6 Councilman Matt Schellenberg, who is also against the measure. He wants more evidence that new schools will help the quality of education overall, and details on how construction would be prioritized over the 15-year life of the tax.

“I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions, and I think they’re way ahead of the game. I think that they haven’t done their jobs educating the City Council or the people to understand what’s going on,” he says.

The School Board spoke at length about acknowledging the need to continue to educate the community on the details of the proposal they’re currently working from. They have not yet approved the final Master Plan capital outlay plan which this tax would support, but the District says that Plan would be finalized before the referendum. 

The nearly $2 billion proposal includes a comprehensive list of which schools would be renovated, rebuilt, or consolidated, as well as the need to get that done. The money would also be used for safety, security, and technology upgrades at schools. DCPS says the District’s schools are the oldest in the state, and keeping up with the maintenance alone has become incredibly costly, with the bill only continuing to grow. The half-cent sales tax has a 15-year life, and the District estimates that would mean about $80 million annually, or $1.2 billion over the 15 years.

WOKV also asked Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry whether he will support putting this measure on a ballot. A City Spokesperson says he has no comment at this time.

The timing of the vote could actually mean that this issue doesn’t fall on some sitting Council members to decide, because there are several new City Council members taking office July 1st. In addition to the five new Council members who were elected in March, five of the 19 Council seats are up for election next week, and at least two of those will be filled by someone who’s not currently on the Council. WOKV reached out to all new incoming Council members and candidates in the remaining races, for their thoughts on the referendum, if the matter does fall to the new Council.

Incoming At-Large Group 4 Councilman Matt Carlucci says, after speaking with the Superintendent about what the funding would be used for and the anticipated impact on student performance, he is inclined to support putting it on the ballot this year. Incoming District 13 Councilman Rory Diamond says with this overall cost and need so high, this all feels rushed.

“We owe it to our school children and the tax payers to take a break and ask the School Board to come back with a far more detailed and accountable plan,” he says.

At-Large Group 1 candidate Lisa King says she supports putting a referendum on the ballot so Duval voters can decide. King is running against current District 10 Councilman Terrance Freeman, who has not yet responded to our request for information.

In District 8, candidate Tameka Gaines Holly says this matter should be put to voters, but she wants to first see an approved plan that incorporates feedback from the community and other stakeholders. She is running against incumbent Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman, who has not yet responded to our request for information.

District 14 candidate Sunny Gettinger says she supports putting this on a ballot, but thinks the timing, and subsequent turnout, would be better with an existing election, as opposed to a special one. She is running against Randy DeFoor in this race, and DeFoor has not yet responded to our request. Neither of them are sitting members of the City Council.

WOKV will continue to update this story as we get more responses from City Council members, incoming Council members, and remaining Council candidates.

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