Duval County parent to file suit against city over referendum

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It appears the dispute over putting a half-cent sales tax referendum to fund school improvements before Duval County voters is headed to court.

Attorney Tad Delegal is prepared to file an emergency petition against the city of Jacksonville on behalf of parents and guardians of students enrolled in Duval County public schools over the City Council's failure to authorize a referendum to raise revenues to fix or replace Jacksonville's schools. The petition questions whether City Council has jurisdiction over whether the School Board can put a referendum on the ballot.

"We don’t believe the City Council had the authority to withdraw the bill. We believe the law provides a remedy for our clients to ensure this matter gets on the ballot," Delegal said.

LAWSUIT: Parents vs. Consolidated City of Jacksonville

"I cannot believe that grown people would let children suffer in this kind of manner," said Eunice Barnum, a parent who is one of four plaintiffs in the petition.

Asked about the legal action, Jacksonville's Chief Administrative Officer, Brian Hughes, released a brief statement:

“It’s a shame that the School Board won’t work with the City Council and find a process that would be successful to both the students and schools," Hughes said.

The School Board is proposing a half-cent sales tax to provide revenue to improve security and safety and to upgrade Duval County's aging schools. If approved by voters, the tax would run 15 years and raise an estimated $1.2 billion. Duval County Public Schools has released a master plan of more than $1.9 billion in needed improvements and timeline of how that money would be spent.

The day after the City Council voted 14-5 last month to withdraw a bill authorizing the referendum, the school board voted 6-1 to hire a team of high-profile attorneys to get the potential half-cent tax on the 2019 or 2020 ballot, but that team did not include Delegal.

In response to the School Board's action, the city's general counsel, Jason Gabriel, insisted the board "immediately cease and desist from any further engagement" because they aren't authorized to hire attorneys without approval. It was Gabriel's opinion months ago that City Council had to approve the School Board's request for a referendum that led to a summer-long stalemate between the two elected bodies.

Lori Hershey, the school board chairwoman, said Gabriel's letter of response threatened board members, saying they could be held personally liable for the actions of hiring the new attorneys.

Delegal's lawsuit on behalf of the parents is independent of any action the Duval County School Board is considering. The city has 10 days to file a legal response to the petition, then the case will be assigned to a judge and a hearing will be scheduled.

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