JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Elected officials, religious leaders and community activists rallied Monday on the steps of Jacksonville City Hall, urging City Council members to put a referendum asking for a half-cent sales tax to fix aging schools before voters this year.
Duval County School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey was among those asking the council to let the voters decide whether there should be a half-cent sales tax increase sooner rather than later.
"We are thrilled with the support we have gotten from the community," Hershey said. "It seems like a basic American right, doesn’t it? The right to vote. Don’t we as citizens of Duval County have the right weigh in and make a decision on whether or not we will support children, support public education and move this city forward?"
A UNF poll released Friday found that nearly three out of four registered voters in Duval County support the measure to upgrade the conditions of several schools in the county. But according to the poll, most voters want to wait to vote on the referendum until the 2020 general election.
"We state we love our children but now the house is on fire and we want to wait until 2020 to call the fire department to put it out," Rev. Aaron Flagg Jr., of Emmanuel Baptist Church, said at Monday's rally.
Some at the rally questioned the city's general council's opinion that requires the City Council to be the gatekeeper on the School Board's ability to ask voter's to approve the tax.
"Every part of our community is represented here this morning to tell the City Council: 'Let the people vote.' It seems very strange we have to ask what we have a right to do," State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said.
A video from the school district released last week highlights the poor condition of some of its schools, showing broken air conditioners and leaky classrooms. The goal of the half-cent sales tax would be to pay for repairs to some of the district's aging schools and also build and consolidate other schools.
The school board was hoping to have a special election in November on the half-cent sales tax, but the City Council finance committee last week voted to delay a public vote about it until 2020. A second committee voted to defer taking up the measure until next month when newly elected City Council members would be seated.
Council President Aaron Bowman said he does not plan to pull the issue out of the committee process and hold a vote at Tuesday night's City Council meeting -- the last time the current City Council will meet. He told News4Jax there does not appear to be enough support for that to happen.
Mayor Lenny Curry and other Jacksonville leaders have expressed concern about the cost of holding a special election -- estimated to be between $700,000 and $1.5 million -- even though the cost would be paid by the school district.
"We don’t want this to be another JEA; we don’t want this to be another Hart Bridge; and we definitely don’t want this to be another Jacksonville Landing, where the deals are made in the back rooms and not in front of our people and not in front of the voters," said Rep Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville. "So we are talking about this election – this coming election -- and having (the vote) in 2019."
Last week, Hershey commented on the costs of delaying the vote for one year.
“A shame, isn’t it? We are at a state in our city when we have schools and conditions that are really beyond our repair. We are currently spending over $500,000 a month. Deferring the vote on the referendum would mean that we would spend $6 million of taxpayer money to do repairs,” Hershey said.
The NAACP also called Monday for City Council to move forward with the referendum.
"The City Council needs to get on board, do the right thing for the people in the district and for the citizens of Duval County," NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin said.