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School Daze

Tough sledding ahead for tax referendum

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Ironically, what happened last Tuesday night on the Southbank is more important than the election results going live just after this column does. The Duval County School Board, in a shot heard ’round the world (or at least over the river, in City Hall) approved by a 6-1 margin a motion urging a referendum. That popular vote would be an up or down measure on a half-cent sales tax, designed to allow the district to remedy a $2 billion capital shortfall.

Even the one nay voter Charlotte Joyce took a hyperlocalist view, saying it would be hard to sell the plan in her Westside district, given the relative paucity of resources for her schools. The consensus wasn’t with her, however. Ashley Smith-Juarez, who has a political future well beyond the school board should she want it, noted that the “time is now” for a referendum. Smith-Juarez went on to say that the longer the vote is delayed, the more of the district’s overstretched capital budget will go to maintain facilities that really need replacement.

That’s one factor in favor of the election the school board wants: a stand-alone vote in November 2019.

Former Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown used to refer to “the broken promises of Consolidation,” a pithy yet omnibus criticism of how the city never actually delivered the infrastructure it promised during the original 1968 Consolidation vote. Cynics will say that what Northwest Jacksonville and the Eastside lack in amenities, they make up for with alternating over-policing and gunplay, but the fact is that school budgets illustrate the issue well. The poorer your neighborhood, the more likely it is that your school is 40 or 50 years old, a relic from the 20th century. Or an even older school. I can recall former Congresswoman Corrine Brown telling the story of a conversation with a principal at Jackson High School, who was dealing with a roof leak in his office. This was 2016.

The capital needs for the school district are incontrovertible. However, the pathway to 50 percent will be daunting.

The School Board wants a stand-alone election in November. Theoretically, that’s possible. Practically? It’s not their call. Jacksonville’s General Counsel Jason Gabriel takes the position that the City Council alone can set a referendum: what date, which method and even if it should happen at all. Count the votes on the current Council. Can you think of 10 who are going to fast-track a tax increase plan?

Sure, you can say things—and people will—like, “Why not trust the voters?” But the School Board went forth despite express discouragement from Council President Aaron Bowman [R-Jax Chamber]. Bowman, criticized by some as being too close to Curry, has been an avatar of the larger agenda. And why not? Both are pro-business Republicans, closer to the donor class than to populist passions on either side. Bowman can and will stall out measures as needed. Consider the thumping this Council gave to various legislative initiatives of the two leading dissidents on the dais, Anna Lopez Brosche and Garrett Dennis, as a measure of how this government walks together and rocks together. So to speak.

If this Council votes on it, it’ll be because there aren’t the votes to carry.

The next Council? Other than Democrats Brenda Priestly-Jackson, Dennis and Joyce Morgan, from where does the resistance originate? Republican Matt Carlucci is willing to go against the mayor, for now. Danny Becton has talked a good game, but walking the walk on the final vote has been a different matter. Tommy Hazouri? Not if he wants to be council president.

The longer the referendum is delayed, the more protracted its death. There’s a rhythm in these matters: the drip-drip-drop of the oppo dumps … the mailers impelled by polling and segmentation … the direct appeals to whatever generates those demographics.

Every winning campaign looks the same now, because these tactics work. Rick Scott won three times statewide by having the better political operation. And Lenny Curry, former RPoF chair, brought that game plan to the local level. In this case, the machine will (if it needs to) define Diana Greene, appointed superintendent, bringing up every bad news clipping from her tenure in Manatee County and playing it up like the Mueller Report.

Rinse, repeat, rinse.

Some of those closest to Lenny Curry see this as the fight they’ve wanted. It validates the charter model and makes the elected school board look incompetent, just in time for the charter review. Curry may never say that much, but it’ll be worth watching to see if he “engages” here, or simply dead-weights the issue like he did the Confederate monument removal plan which never went anywhere when it was clear he wasn’t on board.

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