Duval County School Board sues city of Jacksonville over referendum

Teachers union joins School Board in asking courts to intervene

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

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A second lawsuit has been filed in two days over Jacksonville City Council's refusal to put a half-cent sales tax to improve school facilities on a referendum for voters.

The Duval County School Board and Duval Teachers United are plaintiffs in an emergency complaint against the city of Jacksonville by three high-profile private attorneys working for the School Board: Hank Coxe, Scott Cairns and Audrey Moran.

The School Board passed a resolution in May asking for a referendum about 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 a timeline of how that money would be spent.

After a summerlong debate, City Council voted 14-5 to withdraw a bill that would have authorized the referendum. The next day, the school board voted 6-1 to hire a team of attorneys to get the potential half-cent tax on the 2019 or 2020 ballot.

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 the monthslong 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.

The School Board/DTU legal complaint filed Tuesday asks a judge to declare that the School Board has the sole authority to levy the sales tax without amendment other than the date of the election, enjoin the city from "continuing to delay" placing the tax on the ballot and award the plaintiffs any legal costs, including their attorneys' fees.

DOCUMENT: School Board and DTU vs. city of Jacksonville

The attorneys representing the School Board released this statement:

Today the Duval County School Board and Duval Teachers United filed a complaint with the Circuit Court seeking to bring the issue of a School Capital Surtax before the voters of Duval County. The suit seeks to have the Court declare that the City, through its City Council, has an obligation to place the issue on the ballot. Hopefully, this can be done before the end of the year, but at the latest it should be on the ballot in November of 2020."

"Between now and the vote on this issue the School Board looks forward to many discussions about the need for this Surtax and the best way to use these funds to improve our school system.  But the first step is to get this scheduled for a vote by the people of Jacksonville."

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