Last week, the Jacksonville City Council sent the Duval County School Board a list of questions to answer before it would consider putting the board’s proposed school-infrastructure referendum on the ballot. The public vote would authorize a half-penny sales tax to fund much-needed maintenance and repairs of our deteriorating schools. Currently, the facilities are so old and dilapidated that our children’s health and safety are in jeopardy. There were 94 questions with subparts. For comparison, Rule 1.340(a) of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to ask only 30 questions, including all subparts.
For your information, here’s a list of the number of questions each councilmember asked: Bowman, 53; Cumber, 39; DeFoor, 23; Ferraro, 21; Jackson, 22; Wilson, 11; Salem, 7; Hazouri, 6; Freeman, 6; Pittman, 6 and Boylan, 4. Only Matt Carlucci abstained, a sign of wisdom on his part. These totals are approximations because it’s difficult to get a precise number. Moreover, Wilson says that “there may be additional follow up questions.” Like the sign that says “Free Beer Tomorrow,” the school board will find that the council’s approval is always a day away.
The questions also demonstrate that the brightest people are not on our City Council. Many of our councilmembers asked questions about the operation of our schools. Section 212.055(6) of the Florida Statutes—the language that authorizes the school board to place the referendum on the ballot—expressly states that no proceeds shall be used for “operational expenses.” Others asked for detailed plans such as the order in which the schools would be repaired. However, Attorney General Opinion (AGO) 2008-08 holds that a school board’s plan does not have to mandate the order in which schools will be repaired and that a school board has the flexibility to prioritize the use of funds after a referendum has passed. AGO 2002-55 also holds that a school board has “some flexibility in describing the type of projects to be funded rather than requiring a description of each specific project itself.” Others asked if the sales tax money can be used to maintain leased charter schools. The answer is that AGO 99-24 states that capital cannot be used to make improvements to leased property, because the improvements would not be for the benefit of the public, but for the benefit of the property owners.
The council likes to ask questions, and so do its constituents. Here are a few to ask the council.
1. Will the council permit an impact fee to be imposed on developers for the general benefit of public and charter schools?
2. Will the council reimburse the school board for the extra $6 million in maintenance costs that will be incurred if the referendum is delayed until November 2020?
3. Were any of the council’s questions prepared by the Office of General Counsel, the Mayor’s Office or the Civic Association (a group of charter school owners and allies who have been trying to steer a large part of the sales-tax revenue toward their own projects)?
4. How much money has each councilmember received from each member of the Civic Association in campaign donations?
5. Why is the council demanding such detailed questions from the school board when it was quite willing to approve the demolition of The Jacksonville Landing without asking any questions about what would go in its place?
6. Will the council agree to pay the damages that will be incurred if any child is injured or killed by a falling ceiling fan, heat exhaustion from the lack of air conditioning, or any other maintenance problem?
What should be done now? There are two things. First, concerned citizens could get together, file a lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and seek an emergency order to get the referendum on the November 2019 ballot. A group of parents acting as “next friend” for their kids ages 5-14 would make excellent parties to challenge the city. Jacksonville’s General Counsel says that he has the power to prevent the school board from suing the city, but he does not have the power to stop American citizens from suing the city.
Second, our citizens could seek to recall the mayor. Lenny Curry is behind the council’s refusal to put the referendum on the ballot. He is behind JEA’s renewed privatization push, despite campaign promises to the contrary. He is behind the plan to destroy The Jacksonville Landing. He is behind the decision to spend $36 million to tear down the Hart Bridge ramps, unconcerned about the massive traffic problems that will follow. We have already lost a major music festival, Welcome to Rockville, because of these ill-conceived “development” plans. Moreover, a recent poll found that the mayor’s approval rating was only 46 percent, while his disapproval rate was 37 percent. Accordingly, now may be the time to get rid of him.
Bork is a Jacksonville-based attorney with more than 20 years’ experience.