Uncertainty clouds Duval school tax plan
Duval County Public Schools headquarters in Jacksonville.

Timing is everything. And it's out of the school board's control.

On Tuesday, the Duval County School Board is poised to approve a motion requesting that the Jacksonville City Council schedule a tax-hike referendum.

The board, which contemplates an additional 1/2 cent sales tax to pay down a $1.95 billion capital backlog, will face some institutional road blocks.

For one, Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Gabriel issued Monday a preemptory legal opinion that noted referenda timing and whether they happen at all is a sole judgement of the Council.

“The Council has legislative discretion regarding whether and when to place the sales
surtax referendum on the ballot,” Gabriel asserted, in a binding opinion that covers local government.

“In other words, attempting to define the role of the City Council would violate
separation of powers, because nothing in the statute creates or suggests a standard by which a
court could determine the limits of the Council’s power to choose the date of the election or the form of the election. Indeed, nothing in the statute explains why a court should limit the
council’s discretion to merely the date, or the form, of the election,” Gabriel added.

In other words, the School Board’s vote would only serve as a recommendation to the Council.

Timing is everything.

Council President Aaron Bowman told the Florida Times-Union that the bill would be on a six-week cycle, doubting a “need to rush” through a vote on this.

The hope is to have the vote in June, though legislation would have to be drafted this week for that to be guaranteed.

Bowman does not support the measure, and that’s a view shared by some in Mayor Lenny Curry‘s orbit.

There is a recent regional precedent for this: a couple of years back, St. Johns County voters approved their own referendum to raise school taxes.

The campaign, which succeeded by a 22 percent margin, was not through osmosis. Proponents cited an intense ground game and targeted appeal to early voting supervoters.

Jacksonville has seen two successful referendums of its own in recent years.

Bestbet spent $2 million to convince Duval County voters to expand gambling operations, getting 57 percent of the vote. And the Curry machine spent big to authorize pension reform, scoring 65 percent of the vote.

The marketing operation behind the bestbet referendum was multifaceted, with intentionally non-aggressive television ads positioning the measure as “something we can all agree on.” As well, there were aggressive field efforts at early voting locations in Northwest Jacksonville over the weekend, to build the GOP-backed measure’s strength with Democrats in the area.

The “Yes for Jacksonville” pension reform effort saw a variety of donors, mostly institutional stakeholders, pushing the pension reform referendum’s coffers over the $2.1 million mark.

That referendum required considerable voter education, as voters in tax-averse Duval County needed convincing of the wisdom of extending a 1/2-cent infrastructure sales tax past its expected sunset date of 2030.

So what will it take to sell a school tax?

A few million bucks, and buy-in from the donor class, and the machine behind it.

Those conditions don’t seem to hold here, suggesting that the referendum may be a dead issue even before the School Board votes Tuesday.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Frankie M.

    May 6, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    Not surprising that this referendum might be DOA. Students in Duval have been getting the shaft for decades. Just one more sign that the mayor is a follower & not a leader. Selling JEA, tearing down the landing, raising taxes to pay for the pension plan were all proposed by curry’s predecessor. Brown would have been successful too if he didn’t have a D next to his name. I wonder what the mayor would propose to fix this aging school system? Probably more strip mall charter schools with students staring at computer screens with vacant expressions like bored telemarketers.

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