Clay County school leaders clash over sales tax resolution
Lawsuit filed after County Commission rejected school board proposal
CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – There were tense moments during a Clay County school board meeting Tuesday about a lawsuit filed against the County Commission over putting a half-cent sales tax resolution on a ballot.
The money gained from the tax hike would be used to improve Clay County public schools, addressing issues such as failing air conditioning units and a high number of portable classrooms.
The County Commission had to vote to approve putting the measure on a ballot, but rejected the board's proposal, sending it back to the board for refinement. One thought was to put it on the 2020 ballot during the presidential election, which would save taxpayer money.
The board sued the County Commission because it contends the commission's vote is ministerial and the proposal should be passed, saying it's ultimately a school board decision.
"Their attorney, Courtney Grimm, advised them that it is mandatory that they place it on the ballot," said Janie Kerekes, a school board member. "It happened to us in 2014 and they did the same thing and we did go to court. The judge ruled in favor of the school board, and I feel we're very confident we're within our rights."
County Commissioner Gavin Rollins disagrees. He said the school board hired outside counsel, which is an extra burden to taxpayers.
"I think it's very unfortunate the school board is suing," Rollins said. "If a student in my classroom acted the way the school board is, I'd send them to the principal's office. They're just pitching a fit because they're not getting their way."
During a school board budget meeting on Tuesday, a simmering issue was brought to the forefront, concerning a personal link between two board members and two County Commissioners.
School board member Mary Bolla is married to Commissioner Wayne Bolla, and school board member Ashley Gilhousen is the daughter of Commissioner Diane Hutchings.
Bolla and Gilhousen both voted against the sales tax hike proposal last month. Neither disagreed that the schools didn't need the money, however.
Gilhousen has said she feels the school board needed to take more time to make its case to the public. She also expressed concern and disagreement over the board's decision to file a lawsuit at the meeting.
Kerekes: "Okay, I see where this is going. I mean, we're a board divided and I feel that there's a conflict of interest because of the County Commission connection here with Mrs. Bolla's husband."
Bolla: "Oh, excuse me, Ms. Kerekes."
Kerekes: "I'm concerned that --"
Bolla: "I take a personal affront to that right now."
Kerekes: "I'm speaking."
Bolla: "And I'm interrupting you. (inaudible) That is inappropriate."
Studdard: "Ladies, I'm not going to hear any more of this. The meeting is adjourned."
Bolla provided News4Jax a response to the exchange that reads:
"We were discussing the backup document for the special meeting called on July 8. The supporting document indicated a danger to students in our schools as the reason for this meeting when, in fact, I was told it was to set the date for the referendum.
"I was voicing my opinion that we be more transparent. When Mrs. Kerekes alluded to the fact that I was referencing a safety issue, which I take very seriously, to my husband's position, I was shocked. It was a totally inappropriate and unprofessional comment to a fellow school board member."
The lawsuit may have a hearing within the next week. On Monday, a judge ruled the County Commision had a week to make its case as to why it ruled the way it did.
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