Boos & jeers before City Council withdraws sales tax bill

Chambers cleared after outburst from crowd, but Jim Piggott was able to stay

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After weeks of debate and a large turnout of citizens urging support, the Jacksonville City Council on Wednesday voted 14-5 to withdraw a bill that would put a tax referendum requested by the Duval County School Board on a ballot.

Ahead of the City Council's decision, the council chambers were cleared due to an outburst from the crowd while the sales tax measure was discussed. There were boos and jeers from people who did not support withdrawing the issue.

Police told the media to leave the chambers as well, but News4Jax reporter Jim Piggott told the council president that he would need to be arrested to before he would leave.

READ: Jim Piggott: 'I was not going to leave' City Council meeting

Among those asked to leave was state Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville).

“I’ve never seen anything like this in Tallahassee since I’ve been elected in 2002. I’ve never been thrown out of anywhere. Anywhere," Gibson said. "I work myself to the bone for our community and what I just saw was very rude and it started out rude."

How they voted

Voting for withdrawal:
Danny Becton, Aaron Bowman, Michael Boylan, LeeAnna Cumber, Rory Diamond, Al Ferraro, Terrance Freeman, Reggie Gaffney, Tommy Hazouri, Sam Newby, Ju’Coby Pittman, Ron Salem, Randy White, and City Council President Scott Wilson.

Voting against withdrawal:
Matt Carlucci, Randy DeFoor, Garrett Dennis, Joyce Morgan and Brenda Priestly Jackson.

The meeting continued after the chambers were cleared, and the vote was taken without an audience, although the meeting could be watched online or a cable television channel.

Withdrawing the motion allowed the council to reconsider the bill, though it's unclear when the council might do that. If the bill was voted on and defeated, the issue could not be taken up for a year.

E​​​​​​ducation leaders say the sales tax is needed and asked the council in May to go forward with a referendum, but the city's general counsel said City Council must decide if the referendum can go on the ballot, and when.

The School Board has called a special meeting for 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the council's decision.

In June, the Duval County School Board approved its $1.9 billion Master Plan to repair or replace school buildings. It has held several public meetings and released more specific information in response to council member questions over the summer. 

On Tuesday, Duval County Public Schools released an implementation timeline and committed that all schools in the district would receive some finding from the new tax within three years and outlined the three phases of the total project.

DOCUMENT: DCPS Master Plan timeline and phases

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund asked voters to pack Tuesday’s meeting to show support for the measure, and hundreds showed up, most wearing red and many carrying signs.  Along with members of the School Board, they’re demanding city council put the half-cent sales tax to voters this year. School Board members said Monday they remain hopeful the sales tax will make it on the ballot this year, but some did express concerns it may have to wait.

“There was a lot of consensus with the board. We wanted to send a signal that, 'Yes we do have a plan. 'If you listen to the conversation around the table there was also a desire by a majority of board members to continue the conversation and actually have a workshop to work things out," Lori Hershey, said.

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund also believes the half-cent sales tax will fix and repair aging schools in the district. The organization says one of the main reasons the tax needs to be voted on this year as opposed to 2020 is because many schools need repairs to provide a safe, 21st Century learning environment for students.

They also said many of the schools in the worst condition are in high-poverty areas. The organization said they polled voters and found a majority would support the tax increase for public education.

If the tax is eventually approved, the Duval County School Board will also allow charter schools to get a chunk of that money -- an obvious concern of several city council members.

On Monday morning, the School Board approved a plan outlining how the money would be divided up between traditional and charter schools if a referendum for a half-cent sales tax to fund capital improvements for schools is ultimately put on the ballot. 

Charter schools are public schools in that they offer free education, funded by taxpayers. Per-student funds are distributed equally to both. The difference is charters are managed privately and, in some cases, run as for-profit businesses.

READ MORE: How are charter schools different than your neighborhood school?

Charter schools sometimes lease rather than own the buildings in which they operate. For some, that has been a bone of contention. The concern is spending tax dollars on leased space that can't be recouped should the charter school close. In the past, many school board members felt it was unfair charter schools would get money for upgrades when their buildings are not as old as traditional schools. The oldest charter school in Duval County was built 22 years ago, while the oldest traditional school is more than 100 years old. 

In a 4-3 vote during a meeting Monday morning, the School Board approved the superintendent's recommendations, which included that all schools in the district -- traditional and charter -- get $5 per square foot for security enhancements, plus charter schools would get money based on need and ownership status. 

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