Despite overwhelming popular support for a schools-revenue increase, Mayor Lenny Curry and Council member John Crescimbeni have both come out against the idea of holding a referendum this November, because it could cost voters more than a million dollars to conduct the election. On May 7, the Duval County School Board passed a resolution in favor of letting Jacksonville’s voters decide on a half-penny sales tax to repair, renovate and, in some cases, consolidate the district’s schools. If the measure makes it on the ballot and voters approve the half-cent sales tax, it is projected to raise at least $1.3 billion dollars in a 15-year time span.
This year, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund conducted a poll showing 78.5 percent of respondents favored a small surtax to support our schools. Curry has not commented on the substance of the referendum; two days after the board’s resolution, he said he needed a chance to study the details.
This is the Curry Administration’s second move to slow or kill the school board’s voter referendum. It follows an opinion issued by Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel attorney Stephen Durden last week, ruling that the school board’s taxation powers essentially belong to the City Council, which gets to decide if and when to present the ballot item to the voters.
The question now is, do the mayor and council agree that we should raise revenue for our schools, and if so, when?
As we wait for them to decide, Duval schools continue to suffer, to the tune of $500,000 a month. That’s how much it costs to fix hazardous faulty wiring, leaky plumbing, air-conditioning problems, crumbling walls and contaminated ventilation systems. The district has some of the oldest schools in Florida and says it needs $1.95 billion to renovate or replace its aging schools.
“We need this yesterday,” says school board member Elizabeth Anderson.
DCSB Chairman Lori Hershey remains undaunted by the opposition to the referendum. “I’m going to meet with the mayor next week, and I have one question: ‘How do we make this work?’ ”
Hershey proposes a way to cut the cost of a special election in half, an expense that is more than offset, she says, by the half-million dollars in monthly emergency expenditures now being made by the district. Hershey proposes a vote-by-mail-only method. Hamilton and Jackson counties have already experimented with the novel vote-by-mail-only elections method, and Osceola and Volusia counties will hold vote-by-mail referenda this year.
Hershey says she is hopeful about the proposed referendum, though she can’t speculate about how much time the OGC will take to craft the legislation and send it to the City Council for a vote. The school board has requested that the item go to the voters this November, before new laws take effect in 2020.
“The goal of the board is to let the people decide,” Hershey said. “We’ve been talking about our need for new revenue for a while, and have been since the beginning of the year.”
Others, including the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, have been bringing up the subject for years. Former Duval Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti publicly floated the sales-tax idea in 2016 for school maintenance and construction, but unlike sitting Supt. Diana Greene, he did not bring a resolution to the board. That was the same year Curry took his pension reform plan to the voters.
On May 9, during WJCT’s First Coast Connect, Dr. Greene told Melissa Ross the board has already maxed out its bond capacity as well as its millage capacity for capital expenditures. Impact fees, she said, would only apply to areas experiencing new growth.
Why the delay?
Newly elected District 2 board member Elizabeth Anderson says that, despite the mayor’s hesitation, the board is confident going forward with the referendum proposal even as consensus is being built around the details of the master plan.
“The plan will be in place long before any vote is held,” she said. Pointing out that the master plan for facilities is to be implemented over 10 years, she added, “The plan’s going to have to be dynamic, anyway. And there will be an oversight committee.”
Waiting beyond November 2019 would render the proposed school sales-tax referendum subject to new laws taking effect Jan. 1, 2020. One law requires referenda to go before the voters only during general elections. Another demands that school districts share any tax dollars raised “proportionately” with charter schools. That’s on top of the $158 million capital-improvement gift that lawmakers gave the state’s 650 charter schools this session. Florida’s more than 3,000 traditional public schools received zero dollars from that allocation.
The new tax-sharing law is a factor that Jacksonville’s unelected Civic Council, for the most part composed of charter school proponents who also donate heavily to Curry’s PAC, isn’t likely to have overlooked.
In a letter dated May 6, Civic Council President and CEO Jeanne Miller and Education Task Force Chairman Gary Chartrand (formerly the chair of the Florida Department of Education) expressed their admiration for the part of the plan that consolidates under-utilized schools for efficiency. They criticized the rest of the plan as too expensive, especially now that the legislature has given districts more flexibility in building schools. According to lawmakers, Florida, while still recovering from hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Michael, doesn’t need as many schools as it once did to serve as hurricane shelters. Lawmakers are now fine with more lax building codes for some schools. In their offer to assist the board to develop charter-school-type efficiencies, the authors imply that the board failed to “equitably represent” the families in Duval County who choose charter schools, noting that charters will serve 20 percent of all Duval students by 2019. They are clearly vying for a piece of any new revenue pie.
Hershey takes issue with the Civic Council’s contention that they overlooked charter schools. “We did factor in charter school growth when we did our master plan,” she said.
Duval County has become a hotbed for education privatization, even as the area’s voters rejected the current governor’s education agenda last November, voting for Andrew Gillum instead.
Supt. Diana Greene, on First Coast Connect, still remains undaunted by the ever-shifting and expanding definitions of what the phrase “public school” means.
“I have no problem competing,” Greene said. She just wants a level playing field.
What do Curry’s backers really want?
Will the city council, the mayor and those who back him begrudge Greene and the board the opportunity to repair and improve the schools that 87 percent of school children in Jacksonville attend? Operating the traditional public schools has been a challenge for local districts for the past two decades, given lawmakers who favor privatization and starve public school funding under the paradigm instituted by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Florida lawmakers rolled back the local school-capital-improvement levy from 2 to 1.5 million, beginning when the great recession hit, but they failed to restore the rate as the housing market rebounded. The legislature also instructed local boards to pass millage rate cuts for operational expenses, the “required local effort,” so that school operations can’t grow as Jacksonville’s property values prosper. Further, the conservative Florida legislature has allocated most or all of the state’s utility-fee-based PECO funds, intended for maintenance and capital improvements, to charter schools since about 2010.
Despite our recount-close statewide elections, the Florida legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, much like the conservative power structure in Jacksonville. Why would the mayor want to slow down the referendum train? Events on the horizon in 2020 may offer a clue.
Donor-class conservatives in Jacksonville have sought to exert more control over the school board since 2010. That year, members of the commission tasked with revamping Jacksonville’s consolidated city-county charter pushed for a mayor-appointed school board. A decade later, the Charter Revision Commission is preparing to reconvene to revamp the government document once again, an undertaking that occurs contemporaneously with each U.S. Census. Next year, census numbers may justify adding more representatives to the Duval County School board.
An eighth school board member who gets to vote twice?
Political observers predict commissioners will craft a referendum of their own for Jacksonville voters. They’ll ask to voters to approve the addition of an eighth school board member for a county-wide, or at-large, seat in addition to the school board’s district seats. Florida law already provides that an eighth, at-large member can serve as chairman of the school board if the voters approve the creation of the position.
Winning an at-large seat takes far more financial resources than winning smaller, district seats, so an at-large candidate will be more susceptible to campaign donors like the ones who donate to Curry’s PAC. More importantly, the chairman of the DCSB has the power to decide tie-votes; an eighth, at-large board member would essentially possess two votes.
At this writing, Council President Aaron Bowman has named former school board member Scott Shine and the candidate who unsuccessfully ran for Shine’s vacated seat, Nick Howland, to serve on the commission. Shine co-founded the pro-privatization organization, School Choice Movement. If achieved, more donor-class control of Duval’s school board will mean more control of the board’s assets—its budget, its buildings, its land, and now, any new revenue it might raise.
Advocating for the 87 percent
The real-estate envy isn’t lost on Greene or Hershey. Both have announced publicly their intent to move forward with an appraisal of the district’s crown jewel, the riverfront administration property on Prudential Drive, which sits adjacent to developer Peter Rummell’s new project, The District. Rummell and his partner, Michael Munz, are also regular donors to Curry’s PAC.
Given state laws, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ win and the list of developers who tithe to Curry’s PAC, Jacksonville on the Rise, it’s a forgone conclusion that charter interests will get their two-tenths of the public school pie. Given the mayor’s political machine, it’s also likely the eighth-school-board-member proposal will come to pass.
Hershey isn’t waiting for the metaphorical crumbs to drop from the table where Curry’s backers have gathered. Instead, sending the referendum to the city has earned her—and the 130,000 school children she was elected to represent—a seat at the power-brokers’ table. At least for the mom