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School Board opts to hire outside counsel to continue sales tax fight

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In an emergency meeting on Wednesday, the Duval County School Board voted 6 to 1 to hire outside counsel to consider its options to get a half-cent sales tax referendum on a ballot for voters.

This move came after the Jacksonville City Council voted Tuesday night to withdraw the board's measure to put a half-cent sales tax plan on the ballot. The council can reintroduce the bill for a vote but that won’t happen until next year at the earliest. 

Most of the school board members expressed concern that the debate over whether to take this to the voters is based on how the dollars will be shared with charter schools.

School Board members have laid out how the money will be shared but there's disagreement from City Council and at least one member of the school board on if it's enough.

The majority of the School Board feels the City Council doesn't have the right to question how the money is used for charter schools.

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

The attorneys hired to represent the board were referred to as the "dream team." Prominent local attorneys like Hank Coxe, W.C. Gentry, Audrey Moran and several others have agreed to represent the School Board in this fight. They also said they would represent the School Board at the same rate as the general counsel does for the city.

But there's a strong opponent in the room.

The head attorney for the city, Jason Gabriel, has already said that the School Board cannot hire outside legal counsel. Gabriel also said in a binding agreement that the City Council controls when the referendum for schools goes before voters.

Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey said that she believes that a neutral legal opinion is necessary.

“There appears to be a conflict of interest. I feel we have exhausted every avenue and every path we can. I know that the six board members who have consistently been in support of the referendum and getting a date on the ballot have worked tirelessly," Hershey said. "We're clearly at an impasse and again the goal of the Duval County School Board is to bring the question to the voters."

The one dissenting vote came from School Board member Charlotte Joyce. She said she hates that it's come to this, and she wanted the school board to first rewrite the resolution and try to get the City Council to put it on the ballot in 2020.

“I think that we really do need to get a consensus. We need to have our partners on the other side of the river, and I don't think they're against it. I just think they want some things worked out to make it more equitable,” Joyce said.

Councilman Rory Diamond, who Tuesday night voted to withdraw, the resolution and take it up later reacted to the School Board’s decision to seek legal counsel.

“I think what we've done is needlessly prolonged this today by bringing in more lawyers and lawsuits and it's always going to take more time. But again we'll get back on track. We'll get this to the voters when we have a broad-based plan that everyone can get behind,” Diamond said.

What happens next is debatable. Coxe said they expect Gabriel to again say the school can't hire outside counsel and the legal battle back and forth will continue.

The School Board is proposing the half-cent sales tax to provide money to improve security and safety and to upgrade Duval County's aging schools.

DOCUMENT: DCPS Master Plan timeline and phases

Charter schools and traditional schools will each receive the same dollars based on size and how long they've been educating students in the district.

The only difference is if the building is leased, which is the case for many of the charter schools in Duval County.


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