Will City Council put sales tax referendum on ballot?

Council members have concerns about process, timing of special election

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before voters can decide whether or not Duval County should add a half-cent sales tax to pay for the renovation or replacement of some of its aging public schools, a majority of the Jacksonville City Council must vote to put the referendum on the ballot.

The Duval County School Board voted 6-1 Tuesday night to ask the council to put the referendum before voters. The district said the tax revenue is needed to fund the Facilities Master Plan, a $1.9 billion project.

Matt Schellenberg is one of several City Council members whose time on the council ends July 1. He told News4Jax that if it were up to him, the referendum would not go on a ballot, at least anytime soon.

He is concerned both that the board is asking for a special election in November, which Schellenberg said will be costly and likely have a low turnout. He's also concerned that the board should have involved the council and residents a long time ago, not months before putting a binding resolution on the ballot.

“Think of it this way: If 10% of the people show up, that means 5% of the people make the determination of what’s going forward,” Schellenberg said. “If it’s 20%, only 10% make the determination. That’s wrong and it’s disrespectful of the community and the citizens of Jacksonville.”

Schellenberg said not hearing from the School Board earlier in the process is "disrespectful of the process."

"I’m incredibly disappointed by the process,” Schellenberg said. 

Bowman told News4Jax he didn’t want to comment because it’s too early and there are still questions. He said to his knowledge, no one from the School Board had contacted him or anyone else on the council.

Although Bowman feels the board should have made more attempts to communicate with the council about the referendum earlier, another outgoing council member, Bill Gulliford, doesn’t know if there would have been enough commitment from the council to meet prior to the board’s vote. He said he thinks it’s being handled the right way.

Gulliford does share concerns about scheduling the vote in a special election.

School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey said Wednesday she has a meeting planned with Mayor Lenny Curry later this month and plans to reach out to City Council President Aaron Bowman, but the board has been transparent for several months about the need for additional revenue.

Late Wednesday, Hershey released this statement:

We began this conversation in January and I held the first  community meeting  at Loretto regarding the facilities report. I also held a community meeting at Mandarin High School in March regarding the master plan proposal. Board members have also held respective meetings in their districts. We discussed the need for additional revenue at the City Council and School Board meeting. This resolution is about making the right decision for children in our community.

Dr. Greene and board members have been meeting with stakeholders throughout our community. We will continue the conversation and it is our hope that at the end day it will be the Citizens of Duval County that have the final say."

News4Jax reached out to other City Council members for comment. Here are the comments from those we have heard from so far:

Councilman Scott Wilson: "I do believe our schools in Duval County are in need of repair. The DCSB should have more public involvement up front prior to asking for an increase in sales tax. What new schools will be built? What schools will consolidate? What school properties will be sold? The public should know exactly how the money will be spent prior to the vote. I also have concern for the cost of a single-issue election. I attended a neighborhood meeting Monday night. When this subject came up not one person spoke in favor of the sales tax increase."

Councilman Sam Newby: “I am opposed to placing the half-cent tax increase on the ballot.  There needs to be more time dedicated to exploring this issue.”

Councilwoman Jacoby Pittman said she isn't ready to comment at the time because more information is needed.

Despite council members' concerns, many Jacksonville residents said they would vote yes for a half-cent sales tax increase to improve Jacksonville schools.

“If the facilities are better, you could hire better teachers,” Mark Morley said. “I think it should be a win-win for the students, so, yeah, I support it.”

Kenzi Norris' three children attend private schools but she said she still supports the public school system. 

“I can’t really think of a more worthy cause to invest a little extra in than our children’s education,” Norris said.