Civic Council identifies 3 shortfalls in school district's aging schools plan

School board wants City Council to approve half-cent sales referendum

Photo does not have a caption

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Civic Council recently sent the Duval County superintendent and school board a letter outlining concerns the Civic Council’s Education Task Force has with the school district’s $1.9 billion Facilities Master Plan to fix the county’s aging schools. 

The letter, which was delivered May 3 by email and hand, asks Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene and the Duval County School Board to consider amending the current Facilities Master Plan. 

The Civic Council said in the letter that it has identified three shortfalls to the district’s plan:

  • It is excessively expensive.
  • It fails to anticipate reductions in district-operated school enrollment.
  • It does not adequately contemplate the increase in charter school enrollment or the role that charter schools will play in creating the highly effective school system in the future. 
  • READ: Letter sent by Jacksonville Civic Council

    The letter claims the district could build schools cheaper if using charter school standards. But the district argues Florida law makes that highly unlikely, saying, unlike charter schools, the district must meet certain state standards. 

    The letter said the plan allocated $30,000 to $35,000 for every new or replacement student seat, which the Civic Council said is more expensive in comparison to recent new charter school projects in Duval County that cost approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per student seat. 

    The Civic Council also said the Facilities Master Plan shows the district making provisions for more facilities than it will need, saying data from recent years and future projections show a loss in enrollment for district public schools and a gain in enrollment for the county’s charter schools. 

    According to the Civic Council, in the last four years, district-operated schools have lost an average of 1,000 students per year, going from 117,700 students to 113,600, while charter schools have gained about 1,400, going from 11,000 students to 16,600. The letter said these enrollment trends are expected to continue and the council encourages Duval County Public Schools to study the trends. 

    The district said it has considered enrollment for both public and charter schools and that the original draft plan reduced district student seats by 5,000 and reduced district schools by 25. 

    The school board wants the Jacksonville City Council to approve a half-cent sales tax referendum to be placed on a special election ballot in November. If approved, the tax would last 15 years and bring in about $80 million a year, which would be about $1.2 billion in total. The yearly revenue could be altered a bit each year based on factors such as inflation. 

    If the tax increase were approved, it would be about $70 more a year for the average family. Duval County parent Amanda Jansen is in support of the district's plan, saying, "$70 a year, I honestly don’t think it’s going to affect anybody."

    "I mean, if it can help our schools, then why not?" she said.

    Duval County parent Oscar Perez agrees.

    "It’s for the kids. It’s good. I don’t care to pay more money," Perez said.

    The revenue from the sales tax would go toward the master plan, which would include renovating and replacing the county’s schools, which are on average the oldest in the state of Florida.  

    According to the Civic Council’s website, it is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to shape and define Jacksonville’s future as a premier national and international city with a thriving economy, vibrant civic, cultural and educational institutions and a high-quality of life for all who call it home.

    The school district told News4Jax in a statement Monday that it promised the Civic Council response to the letter by June 30, and it is awaiting a list of the Civic Council's membership so it can reply directly to all members.

    The district's statement continues:

    "As an important leadership organization, we are glad to receive their input; however, the letter is built on some incorrect foundations, which we will be addressing in our response. Here’s a snapshot of the underlying issues expressed in their letter. 

  • The letter asserts the district failed to accommodate charter school growth in its plan.  This is not true. Our predictions for charter school growth are almost identical to those of the Civic Council.
  • The letter asserts the district failed to accommodate anticipated reductions in public school enrollment. This is also not true. The original draft plan reduced district student seats by 5,000 and reduced district schools by 25. These numbers may vary in the final plan. 
  • The letter also asserts the district has authority to build to the lower building safety, security and quality standards of charter school buildings. This is also not true but needs further explanation:
  • "We budgeted the cost of our schools similarly to the cost of recent schools built in St. Johns County. St. Johns budgeted $20 million for an elementary school and we budgeted $19.7 million

    "Like St. Johns and all other districts in Florida, we build schools to state requirements for educational facilities --  a standard designed for student safety, security and meeting the diverse needs of all students (exceptional education students, accelerated students, career and technical students, and an array of in school and after school arts, music and athletic programs).  Charter schools simply don’t have to do that. 

    "The letter exhorts us to plan to build schools to lower charter school building standards. Florida Law makes it highly unlikely that this could occur.  Here’s what would be required by statute for a district to build to the lower charter school building standard:

    • Demonstrate that implementation of the exception will not compromise student safety or the quality of student instruction.
    • Provide a cost-benefit analysis prepared according to a professionally accepted methodology that describes how each exception selected by the district school board achieves cost savings, improves the efficient use of school district resources, and impacts the life-cycle costs and life span for each educational facility to be constructed.
    • Pass with a supermajority vote of the school board. 

    "Since state building codes for educational facilities are in place for the safety and security of students, building longevity and program support, you can see how it would be impossible to convince a supermajority of the School Board that any compromise would not impact those areas. The liability of such an assertion would be enormous.   

    "The issue of whether a school is a hurricane shelter is not part of these estimates and is not relevant now. That is a process we go through with the city at the point of actual building design, not this broader master planning process. If this city needs us to build a school as a hurricane shelter, we are responsible for providing those costs that would be in addition to the costs for building the school to Florida’s educational building standards.  

    "Schools in Florida must be built to high state standards for safety, security, building longevity and educational program support. Our estimates are similar to costs incurred by districts already enjoying the support of their communities for quality public school buildings. 

    "Note that planning for buildings to meet Florida’s highest standards for safety and security is possible with this proposed revenue source that will cost the average family in Jacksonville about $6 a month."