It’s 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Aug. 8, and despite the inconvenient hour, dozens of concerned citizens are cramming into a tiny conference room inside the Mandarin Branch Library. It’s the smallest conference room I’ve ever seen—a cell, really or, if you’re feeling lexically generous, a glorified cubicle.
Enter Jason Fischer. Not literally, because the state rep never showed—he sent sacrificial staffers in his stead—but he’s the reason all these folks are here. Fischer represents Florida House District 16, which covers much of Southside Jacksonville including affluent Mandarin. These are his constituents, and they’re hoping to have a word with Fischer at his announced joint office hours with Florida Sen. Aaron Bean.
They won’t have the chance. Unlucky staffers insist that neither Fischer nor Bean were ever scheduled to actually appear at this session, though public notices make no mention of staff proxies. Fischer’s constituents aren’t buying it; their instinct tells them that their elected representative ducked out to avoid any uncomfortable confrontations. You see, he’s not a very popular figure in his district at the moment.
Earlier in the week, Fischer introduced a controversial local bill, J-1, which would impose political appointees on the school board, whose members are currently elected (as per the Florida Constitution) and beholden to no political benefactors. The bill’s designation—J-One—suggests that this is not standard procedure. Local bills create “special laws.” This is an exotic legislative maneuver conceived to further mire us in procedural hairsplitting while the clock runs out on the main play.
It’s scandalous. It’s a power grab. But, in tactical terms, it’s a feint. Yes, this is part of a coordinated effort on the part of Jacksonville’s political establishment to usurp the authority (and operating budget) of Duval County Public Schools, whose autonomy and integrity are guaranteed by state constitution. The key to this hostile takeover, however, is the school board’s proposed 2019 infrastructure-tax referendum, which is dying on the vine as Curry and his cohorts throw up shiny object after shiny object in an effort to distract public outrage just long enough to run out the clock on a 2019 special election, which is the last, best hope of protecting the DCPS budget from the interest groups salivating on the sidelines.
Said interest groups and their henchmen in City Hall are deliberately muddying the waters, but the stakes should be clear. This is about the constitutional separation of powers and, in the final analysis, the consent of the governed.
Here’s a brief timeline. DCPS presented an infrastructure maintenance plan in the spring. It’s been public for all to see at ourduvalschools.org. Then, in May, the school board exercised its constitutional authority to propose a half-cent sales tax to pay for the work and a November 2019 referendum to give voters, not politicians, the chance to vote the tax up or down. Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel immediately issued a dubious pseudo-opinion that gave City Council final approval on any referendum timetable. Outgoing councilmembers deferred the issue to the incoming City Council, which has disingenuously stonewalled ever since it was installed in late June. Council President Scott Wilson acts like his role is to approve the sales-tax proposal itself, not the referendum, which will give voters the chance to approve or not. In truth, he’s not constitutionally authorized on either count. A scandal erupted when it was revealed that outgoing Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa attempted to extort the school board for consulting fees and special interest kickbacks. (The school board declined his services, but no worries, Mousa Consulting Group Inc. won a $120,000 no-bid contract to advise City Hall shortly thereafter. Indeed, government corruption is evident everywhere, from Lot J development incentives to the sale of the JEA.)
Now, Fischer further stirs the pot with this provocative bill. To be clear, we can—and must—push back against J-1, but we mustn’t let it distract us from the urgency of the referendum vote. In this deliberate confusion, we need clarity, and by overplaying their hand, the oligarchs who would run this town have helped us find that clarity. This is no longer about education policy; it’s about checks and balances, it’s about power, it’s about democracy.
Mind you, there will be a healthy and vigorous policy discussion, but it must take place after the city’s powerbrokers stop waiting out the clock on a 2019 special election. The referendum issue must be resolved immediately. Let the people vote.