Half-cent sales tax to improve public schools on ballot in November

Lovingly referring to it as “the half-cent investment referendum,” At-Large Group 4 City Councilman Matt Carlucci said he is “very pleased,” the Jacksonville City Council and Mayor Lenny Curry are behind having it placed before voters on the November 3, 2020 ballot.

“The bottom line is great cities have great schools,” said Carlucci. “We are a great city, but we need some help with our schools. We are on the verge of being an A school district despite some of the crumbling schools our kids are attending. I think this says a lot about our school district.”

On April 14, the City Council voted, 18-1, in favor of Ordinance 2020-0161, which, if passed, allows a half-cent sales tax to be implemented over 15 years to repair and replace aging school buildings in Duval County. District 13 Councilman Rory Diamond was the only dissenting vote. Mayor Lenny Curry signed the ordinance into law April 16 during a news conference over ZOOM, which included Dr. Diana Greene, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, Warren Jones, chairman of the Duval County School Board, Carlucci, At-Large Group 3 Councilman Tommy Hazouri and District 10 Councilwoman Brenda Priestly-Jackson among others.

Following the City Council’s vote, Jones named Carlucci to join him as co-chair of Duval Citizens for Better Schools, a political committee formed to support passage of the half-cent sales tax for school safety and building construction. “Matt and I have worked together on important issues for many years,” said Jones. “I welcome his leadership as we prepare to ask voters to provide additional funding for our schools.”

Michael Ward of San Marco, a well-known philanthropist, will serve as fundraising chair of the committee. “Michael Ward’s position as fundraising chair gives us a solid leg up on the committee’s ability to raise enough money to inform voters on the importance of voting for the half-penny,” Jones said.

The legislation represents an about face for Mayor Curry and some others on the City Council who initially had concerns about the plan and blocked school board’s ability to hold a referendum last year. The contentious battle with City Hall led to a lawsuit filed by the School Board. Approval of the ordinance signals an end to the lawsuit.

The half-penny sales tax will be in place for 15 years and is predicted by the school board to generate $80 million a year. The school board plans to use the expected $1.9 billion in funds over the years to fund building improvements and technology upgrades to the county’s crumbling schools, many of which are over 100 years old and located in Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods.

According to the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF), which supports the referendum, more than 78% of Duval County residents support a small tax for public school buildings, according to JPEF’s 2019 Public Education Perceptions Poll.

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring that the school district divvy up the money based on individual public-school students, allowing the funds to be proportionately divided between traditional public schools and charter schools.

District 5 Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber said she voted in favor of the referendum but would not necessarily support it as a voter. “Voting for it stopped the lawsuit from the school board. It thought it was important that we not spend any more money on that. Now the voters will make their decision in November. I have some concerns about it as a voter, and they are the same concerns that I expressed back in August. Those haven’t really been addressed.”

Cumber added that she is especially concerned about how and where the money is going to be spent, although she is somewhat relieved that the state has mandated it also go to charter schools. “I think it’s the right thing to do to have it follow the child, but the budget that was presented from the school board with the schools that will be fixed was based on the traditional schools getting all the money, so I think it’s important for me as a voter to understand what’s changed now,” she said.

Other concerns on Cumber’s list are the time frame of when the maintenance will occur at each school, the order of the schools being done, and, if twice as much money is raised from the tax, how, exactly, the additional funds will be allocated.

“It is a 15-year tax. It’s important to know, if your child is in school right now whether the issues at their school are going to be addressed now or 15 years from now,” she said. “I also think it’s important to realize we’ve been in a very different world within the last month. Will any of these upgrades address the need for home schooling if it happens again?”

District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor also voted in favor of the sales tax but added the caveat that “we need to make sure the school board uses these funds in an appropriate manner.”

DeFoor said she approved of the state mandate to divvy the money out on a per-student basis. “I think that is exceptionally important because we don’t know what our school choice is going to be for the next two to five to 10 years.

“It’s important that we properly fund our schools whether they are public or charter, because the kids’ future is our future. I’m a business person at heart, and if our schools are good that drives everything including our real estate values and our tax values. If this is properly done and invested appropriately, the return on investment will be huge, not only from a human being standpoint, but also from an economic standpoint, long-term,” she continued, noting investment in the city’s infrastructure is important.

DeFoor said she hopes the school district would build a “strong” middle school in her district – perhaps on property where Venetia Elementary School is located. Better schools in Duval County – especially up-to-date, well-maintained, A-rated schools – will draw residents back to Duval from St. Johns or Nassau Counties, she said.

Meanwhile, Carlucci agreed with DeFoor that the referendum would increase property values, be a great boost to the city’s economy and generate much-needed jobs. He also said it would bring school safety to the thousands of children in Duval County. However, he noted that most charter schools are newer than many of Duval’s elderly educational structures and may not need to be updated or need as much money to repair them. “All students should have equal funding, and that was where the legislature landed, but it was not exactly what I would have preferred,” he said. “There are so many schools that are so much older than the charters. But I don’t want to quibble over it. I just want to move forward,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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