JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville City Council did not put a referendum about a half-cent sales tax on the table for a vote during it's meeting Tuesday night, which was the last meeting before some members rotate off and newly elected members join.
Education and religious leaders and public officials have been pushing for the council to vote on putting a referendum on a half-cent sales tax to fund school facilities before voters this November.
"It's going to be a challenge to get it for this fall," said City Councilman-elect Michael Boylan. "We're all in agreement that this needs to get done in one form or fashion."
The Duval County School Board chairwoman was joined on the steps of City Hall on Monday by dozens of others, asking the council to vote Tuesday night to proceed with a referendum this year, but the issue did not make it onto the formal agenda.
"The people against it, coming out -- they want more information. I can understand that," said City Councilman Jim Love.
"Ultimately, disappointed that it's not going to be heard tonight," said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Florida. "We will continue to fight, and we will continue to ensure our children are safe and secure."
A dozen or more pastors gathered for the afternoon's agenda meeting. Many left once the schools measure did not get added to the agenda. Some said they are going to organize and find peaceful ways to demand a vote.
Mayor Lenny Curry, already on the record saying the community should not rush to a vote on a new tax, issued a new statement Tuesday afternoon:
As a father of public school children I know the needs that our community schools face. I want every child in every neighborhood to learn in a school that is safe and reflects the commitment to future success.
"The opportunity for us to work together - the Mayor’s office, the City Council, the School Board, teachers and parents - is available in the weeks ahead. Together we owe it to Jacksonville’s taxpayers and families to lay out a plan that is financially prudent and well thought out.
"To date such a detailed plan has not been presented to me or to this community. The problem is real and easy to see, but for a solution to be effective, we must come together and ensure a plan that makes all our public schools better.
"I stand ready to work with this city to make that happen.
Duval County Public Schools' Facilities Master Plan, detailing $1.1 billion in specific needs for schools throughout the county, is posted on its website. A half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $1.4 billion over 15 years.
"We are thrilled with the support we have gotten from the community," Duval County School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey said Monday. "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 to 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 until next year to vote.
"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 counsel'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 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.
Curry and other Jacksonville leaders have expressed concern about the cost of holding a special election -- estimated to be between $700,000 and $1.4 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 backrooms 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.
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