JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The proposed half-cent sales tax to improve Duval County schools is about to become a big talking point again following a Wednesday ruling that the School Board has the right to hire its own attorneys to sue the city.
The ruling by Circuit Court Judge Gary Wilkinson on Wednesday is the latest development in the ongoing saga between the city and the School Board as the board fights to place a referendum on the 2020 ballot introducing a half-cent sales tax to upgrade Duval County’s aging schools.
School Board Chairman Warren Jones told News4Jax on Thursday the ruling is just a small step in a bigger fight to come.
“Certainly we were pleased that the judge did a great job rendering in our favor and we had some outstanding attorneys that represented us,” Jones said. “And we felt we were right because the school district was created prior to consolidation. It’s just unfortunate that we had to come to this point.”
After a summerlong debate, Jacksonville City Council voted 14-5 to withdraw a bill that would have authorized the referendum. The next day, the School Board voted 6-1 to hire a team of attorneys to get the potential half-cent tax on the 2019 or 2020 ballot.
In response to the School Board’s action, the city’s general counsel, Jason Gabriel, insisted the board “immediately cease and desist from any further engagement” because it isn’t authorized to hire attorneys without approval.
The School Board and Duval Teachers United filed lawsuits in September and asked a judge to declare that the School Board has the sole authority to levy the sales tax without amendment other than the date of the election.
Lawyers for the city argued the School Board is a constituent of the City of Jacksonville and has been for 50 years since the charter was formed and therefore, if the School Board wants outside representation, it is up to the decision of general counsel.
The defense argued there was nothing in the charter that states the school cannot hire outside counsel. The lead attorney for the School Board also called the situation hypocritical, claiming other city entities have outside representation.
Now, with one hurdle cleared, Jones said the School Board will move forward with the lawsuit and push referendum before voters in November.
“We are very optimistic that we will get it on the 2020 ballot,” Jones said.
If approved by voters, the proposed tax would run 15 years and raise an estimated $1.2 billion. Duval County Public Schools has released a master plan of more than $1.9 billion in needed improvements and a timeline of how that money would be spent.
It’s a plan that was largely supported by the community, according to one poll conducted by the University of North Florida. According to the June 2019 poll by the Public Opinion Research Lab (PORL) at UNF, 75 percent of Duval County registered voters supported increasing sales tax by a half-cent to upgrade or replace aging schools.
“This half-penny sales tax is desperately needed to one, improve and maintain our existing schools and two, build new schools where needed and three, pay off some of that debt,” Jones said. “I think most people realize there is a need. We should not have to wait until we get into a crisis.”
Attorney Hank Coxe, one of three high-profile attorneys working for the School Board, said told News4Jax he plans to meet with the School Board soon to talk about what the next steps will be.
“I speak for all of us when I say that it has been a pleasure working with the School Board and it will be a privilege to move forward,” Coxe said.