Last week, I attended the Finance and Rules Committee meetings of the Jacksonville City Council to hear discussion of Duval County Public Schools’ request for a sales tax referendum—and to contribute my two cents during the public comments period. It was not a pleasant experience.
During the two meetings, the City Council didn’t ask a lot of questions, though certain councilmembers say they have many. The fireworks came when councilmembers Rory Diamond and Matt Carlucci spoke. Diamond announced his opposition to the referendum because he supports charter schools. He stated that the only place he had seen innovation, people changing the rules, and blowing up boxes were charter schools. However, he didn’t bother to identify anything that a charter school did that a public school didn’t do. In fact, the only difference noted between public schools and charter schools was that charter schools had weaker building standards. Imagine a billboard at a new housing development that boasted, “Buy our homes. They’re built to weaker building standards.”
On the other hand, Carlucci was the most forceful presence at both meetings. He started by stating that he was standing up for the school board. He noted the polls that showed 70 percent public support for the referendum. Discussing a bit of Jacksonville history, he observed that a 1966 Consolidation study had stated that the Duval County school system should be of uniform quality. He stated that there were older schools in the Northwest that had to be fixed and made safe.
He concluded his arguments before both committees with a suggestion that councilmembers ask school board members and their superintendent, Dr. Diana Greene, to answer questions. Greene and her board were, after all, in attendance, and certain councilmembers have maintained, vaguely and repeatedly, that they have lots of questions for them. But that would give the school board a voice and a platform to make what City Council leadership knows is a popular case. So, instead, board members were basically relegated to speaking to the council with the other members of the public, keeping within a three-minute limit.
The only exception was when Carlucci was able to get Dr. Greene to the podium to address some of the questions that had been raised. She stated that the school board was recommending that it share revenue with charter schools on the same building-square-footage formula that it was using for traditional public schools. However, none of the councilmembers used this opportunity to ask her any questions. You see, they had questions, but they didn’t want answers. (If you want answers, visit ourduvalschools.org).
Finally, the real drama came at the end, when the public got to speak. Speaker after speaker, citizen after citizen, came to the podium to urge the council to pass the referendum. A few of them were school board members, but most were just concerned Jacksonville residents. A former councilmember said that 100,000 children who had chosen public schools were being held hostage because they wouldn’t share $250 million off the top for charter school students with 16,000 students. He added that our public-school students are in facilities that desperately need safety repairs. Some speakers were angry. Some speakers were shaking. Some speakers nearly cried. Meanwhile, Council President Scott Wilson and Councilmember Tommy Hazouri left the room. They had no need to stick around.
Here is the important thing about the public-comment session. Nearly all of the speakers were African Americans. Now the picture becomes clear. Jacksonville has never wanted to talk about its race problem. Before the vote for Consolidation, promises were made to the African-American community that funds would be used to improve their communities. It did not happen. The Better Jacksonville Plan was supposed to help the area. It did not happen. Curry became mayor, and during his re-election campaign, he didn’t even attend a mayoral debate held to discuss issues important to the Northwest. Now schools there are falling apart, with tiles hanging from the roof and air conditioning failing in classrooms. But the council is unconcerned. Those things are not happening to schools in their communities. In fact, one councilmember talked about walking with a school board member through the schools in her district. For some reason, she didn’t want to walk the schools in the Northwest. Instead, the council wants to get the school board to allocate more money to charter schools at the expense of the schools in the Northwest area of Jacksonville. And it’s easier for the council to do this because it’s the African-American community that is being squeezed.
This has got to stop. It’s time to treat the Northwest fairly. It’s time to demand that the City Council put the referendum on the ballot.
Bork is a Jacksonville-based attorney with more than 20 years’ experience.