According to Lexico, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It’s not city government’s strong suit.
Last week, at a dramatic meeting, Jacksonville City Council rebuffed public pressure to place Duval County Public Schools’ infrastructure-tax referendum on a ballot for voters to decide. Hundreds of referendum supporters were in attendance. Most of them were African Americans from Northwest Jacksonville. However, after only two supporters were allowed to speak, Council President Scott Wilson ordered police to throw them out of the room. There had been some booing from the audience, and Wilson was having none of that. He made no efforts to calm the crowd down, or have police officers stationed near some of the disrupters, or clear the room briefly and then let people back in. I believe that Wilson had already planned to clear these voices from the room at the earliest opportunity. They were African-American voters, and Wilson had no empathy for them.
The same was the true for most of other councilmembers opposing the referendum. Rory Diamond said that the referendum had to be withdrawn so “everyone [could get] on the same page.” Of course, the only way Diamond wanted to get anyone on the same page was by holding a figurative gun to the heads of African-American children and saying to their parents, “You want air-conditioning for your kids’ schools? Well, then you had better give more money to charter schools!” LeAnna Cumber’s comments were along the same lines, except she expressed them with her typical anger. Wilson and Michael Boylan discussed schools in their districts, showing no empathy for the African-American students in other districts—where the lack of air-conditioning is a real problem. Ronald Salem and Tommy Hazouri both made references to the school board’s rejection of the Civic Council’s plan to allocate sales-tax revenues to charter schools on a per-pupil basis, which would divert a full 11 percent of the funds to new buildings with minimal maintenance needs. Hazouri then stated that millions of dollars would be spent against the referendum unless DCPS gave the Civic Council what it wanted.
The Civic Council is, of course, a group of wealthy, mostly white CEOs. Its Education Task Force is chaired by political megadonor Gary Chartrand, who makes his money operating charter schools. Charter schools are big business now. They allowed Chartrand to buy a $5 million oceanfront house in Ponte Vedra Beach. Jacksonville’s councilmembers apparently have more empathy for these rich white CEOs and their campaign money than they do for African-American kids without air-conditioning.
The voting public is a different story. Polls show that 75 percent of Duval County’s voters support the referendum. Even those who don’t support the sales tax agree that it should be the voters’ call, not City Council’s.
Significantly, not one of the councilmembers opposed to the referendum argued that charter schools actually need the money. In fact, the DCPS facilities master plan already shares money with charter schools on the same building-square-footage formula that is being used for public schools. The building-square-footage formula is determined by an engineering study that is done at each school to determine a Facility Condition Index (FCI) score. The higher the score, the greater the needs a school has to address. But that is not acceptable to these councilmembers because charter schools are the newest schools in our district and their FCI scores will not justify their receiving much money. Once again, there is no empathy or sympathy for the African-American children in deteriorating schools, just a desire to get as much money for charter schools as possible.
Some councilmembers did express empathy for all of Jacksonville’s school children. Joyce Morgan stated that the “community wants to vote” and that they should not be stopped by “the big, bad city council.” Brenda Priestly Jackson stated that the Florida Constitution gave the school board the job of educating our children and that the Council should not second-guess its work. Garrett Dennis argued that the council was holding children hostage, looking out for special interests, and disrespecting the school board—and that the council would lose when the case goes to court. Matt Carlucci, Randy DeFoor and Ju’Coby Pittman also supported the referendum.
So what happens now? Well, DCPS has hired three attorneys—Scott Cairns, Hank Coxe and Audrey Moran—to get the referendum on the ballot. Cairns has said that the referendum can still make the ballot in November or December. That’s the ideal scenario. A special election referendum must be held as soon as possible, in 2019. Our children’s schools must be fixed now, and voters must reclaim the authority that has been usurped by the elites devoid of empathy in City Hall.
Bork is a Jacksonville-based attorney with more than 20 years’ experience.