2 City Council committees vote to push back school sales tax decision

Chances of getting half-cent tax on November ballot getting less likely

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Two Jacksonville City Council committees votes Tuesday made it very unlikely that Duval County voters will decide in November on a half-cent sales tax to fund repairs of the city's aging schools.

The Finance Committee voted unanimously in the morning to defer any vote on the sales tax referendum requested by the Duval County School Board. In the afternoon, the Rules Committee also voted to defer the measure but it was not unanimous. Council members Matt Carlucci and Joyce Morgan voted against delaying the vote.

"I was disappointed how quickly they deferred," Carlucci said. "I was disappointed in the fact that the school board administration and board members were here to answer questions and never got a chance to be asked questions."

People, some in tears, told council members that they are not thinking about the children.

The sales tax hike would raise $1.2 billion over a 15-year span and, in doing so, help pay for an estimated $1.9 billion in renovations or replacements that school officials say are sorely needed for some of the city’s aging schools.

"I am going to remain optimistic. It still has an opportunity to happen. We have rules committee this afternoon and will continue to push forward and continue to move each phase of this process forward for our school district," School Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said.

Warren Jones, vice-chairman of the Duval County School Board and a former member of City Council, was less diplomatic.

"It has become painfully obvious. It simply becomes a way to distract from the real issue, and that is, they want to get upfront dollars for the charter schools. They are not owned by the taxpayers," Jones said. "We have over 100,000 students in traditional public schools today and yet this council is holding us hostage because we have not agreed to get $200 million to charter schools upfront." 

The full council could opt to put the tax referendum back on the table with an emergency vote at its meeting next Tuesday, but that is highly unlikely as it would require support from two-thirds of council members. It likely won’t come up at all with the full council.

The supervisor of elections said if a decision is not made by the middle of August to allow a vote to be held this November. Mayor Lenny Curry and several council members have opposed holding a vote this year because of the cost of a special election -- which the school board would pay -- and believed they need more information about how much money would be raised and specifically how it would be spent.

On Monday, City Council President Scott Wilson joined the School Board for its workshop to discuss the issue. Though some wanted the tax to go on the ballot this year, Wilson said too many unknowns remain.

“I think 2020 gives us more time to work through the process to get some questions answered that I know my colleagues have,” City Council President Scott Wilson said Monday after a joint meeting between council members and school leaders. He said he’s supportive of putting it to vote next year.

“I am not telling the School Board to put the brakes on what they want to do with their projects,” Curry said. "What they need is, very specifically, their priorities.”

So what difference would it make putting the issue on the ballot next year in lieu of this year? According to School Board Chair Lori Hershey, quite a lot -- especially when it comes to the bottom line.

“Currently, we spend about half a million dollars a month on repairs and maintenance for our schools,” she said. “And certainly anything that is in dire need of a repair will be addressed and we will continue to ensure that our students are learning in schools that are safe.”

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