School Board answers City Council questions, hopes to break sales tax impasse

2 elected bodies at odds on getting half-cent tax on ballot this year

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three months after the Duval County School Board formally asked for a referendum asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund capital improvements to the city's public schools, the board sat down with the Jacksonville City Council, which has yet to act on the request.

The School Board and the City Council have been at odds over the issue since May when the board approved a half-cent sales tax referendum. The tax would raise over $1.3 billion over the next 25 years to fund renovations and replacements of dilapidated county schools outlined in a detailed Master Facilities Plan.

The debate is not over whether this money is needed -- both the School Coard and the City Council agree that it is. The big question is when the people should vote on it, but some council members also had specific questions about when and where the money would be spent and how much of the money would be spent on charter schools.

Superintendent Diana Greene and her staff said overall goals of the plan are to increase safety, lower maintenance costs, reduce the total number of schools, get rid of 438 portable classrooms and reduce the age of Duval County schools from the current average of 44 years. 

Councilman Rory Diamond has prepared a resolution saying, "The majority of the Council indicates that it will support the plan if the plan includes a clear and concrete allocation for charter schools."

Answering the charter questions, Greene and her staff said they would get some funding in the formula because they are mostly in newer, smaller facilities. Old traditional schools would receive the majority of the revenue that would be generated by the tax.

"Based on the age of each of the charter schools, they will receive a proportionate share," Greene said. 

The schools' plan does call for every school in the district to receive $5 per square foot within the first three years for safety and security upgrades.

Diamond's resolution goes on to recommend that the board modify its school capital outlay surtax revenue be allocated to traditional and charter schools based on student population, not the needs of the school.

"If you do it on a per-pupil basis, you would have schools with greater need than funding they would generate," Greene said. "Then you would have schools that don’t have a need generating massive amounts of dollars. That is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars."

News4Jax has reported on maintenance issues at Duval County Public Schools. Three days before school started for the year, the county had a backlog of 284 work orders for broken or malfunctioning air conditioners.

Simarn Bakshi, principal of Wayman Academy of the Arts -- one of Duval County's 31 charter schools -- said his 20-year-old school building is facing similar challenges.

“We can do with a new air conditioner, a gym, (a) science lab. You know, name it, we had the same challenges as them," Bakshi said.

VIDEO: Funding for charter schools becomes issue
RELATED: How are charter schools different?

The meeting was calm, with council members asking questions and Greene and other administrators answering. Warren Jones, a former councilman who is now vice chairman of the School Board, did surprise many by saying out loud that this is becoming a racial issue because most of the schools in need are in minority neighborhoods.

"It has some racial overtones, no question about it in my mind," Jones said. "I know people don’t like to hear that, but a lot of those (schools needing replacement or repair) were built during the period of segregation when they wanted to keep the races separate."

Legal opinion pending

Despite pushback from several prominent attorneys, the Duval County School Board and some City Council members, the General Counsel's Office continues to insist that the City Council has to approve the ballot measure before the referendum can move forward.

Tuesday night, the City Council unanimously agreed on an emergency motion to ask Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody for her legal opinion on the matter.

The City Council has balked at holding a special election this year, arguing instead to delay the referendum until the next scheduled general election next year when more people will likely vote on the measure. School Board members said they are spending $500,000 every month to maintain aging school buildings and are worried they can't wait that long for the funding.

School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey hoped they could be able to iron out any disagreements during Wednesday morning's joint three-hour meeting.

Hershey said she believes it's too late to get it on the ballot this November, but believes December is still doable.

"I am just asking them when they will give voters an opportunity to vote," Hershey said after Wednesday's meeting. 

Council President Scott Wilson, who wrote to Hershey last Friday that he hoped a vote on the referendum could happen at the Aug. 27 meeting, said he still believes the referendum should be held until November 2020.

"I’m going to allow the committees and they can decide what direction they want to go in," Wilson said. "I’ve already shared with the School Board my issues and if they can resolve those issues by then, I would most likely be in support of the plan."

About the Authors: