Lawyers say City Council can't halt special election on school sales tax

By Nick Jones - Digital producer, Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter, Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Despite an opinion to the contrary from the General Counsel's Office the city of Jacksonville considers legally binding, three high-powered attorneys say the City Council has no authority to halt a sales tax referendum proposed by the Duval County School Board.

The School Board voted in May to put a referendum on the ballot in November, asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax that would raise over $1 billion over the next 25 years to fund renovation and replacement of the county's schools.

While most on Jacksonville City Council and Mayor Lenny Curry admit there is a problem with dilapidated schools in Duval County some agree the half-cent sales tax is the best way to fund school renovations, most have said they want to put the referendum on the ballot in November 2020 rather than holding a special election this year.

School leaders, who said the district is spending $500,000 every month to maintain old school buildings, have said they can't afford to wait.

A memo was issued Friday by Scott Cairns, Hank Coxe and W.C. Gentry, a former member of the school board. In the memo, which was obtained Tuesday by News4Jax, the attorneys say Florida law is clear that when a school board passes a resolution calling for a special election, "The resolution shall be placed on the ballot by the governing body of the county."

The lawyers say the City Council has no authority to take on oversight of the school board's decision. They say the City Council's position is "contrary to a plain reading" of Florida law and a "fundamental misapprehension of its power vis-à-vis the school board." 

READ: Lawyers' memo to General Counsel Jason Gabriel

The half-cent sales tax was not on the agenda during the school board meeting Tuesday night, but it was still on the mind of Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey.

"We've been well aware of the fact that it is our job to sell the proposal to the community and we are certainly prepared and ready and able to answer questions in the community, but getting a date on the ballot, I did not think this would be this difficult," Hershey said.

The board and City Council are scheduled to sit down together next week to work on a solution. During the meeting, it's expected they will get answers from the state attorney general and city lawyers as to who has the last say when the issue goes to a ballot.

"Right now the ball is clearly in their court," Hershey said. "We can ask them when they will allow the voters to decide and we're waiting to see what their answer is."

The joint meeting is set for Aug. 14 at 9 a.m. Dr. Diana Greene, the school superintendent, said the board is prepared to address any issues related to the referendum during the meeting.

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