With the oldest school buildings in the state, Diana Greene, Superintendent of Schools for the Duval County Public School district (Florida), commissioned an analysis of its buildings, including condition and capacity. What resulted was a report with recommendations on consolidation, renovation, and replacement. The price tag? Two Billion Dollars.
(That’s before the charters begin demanding a piece of the action.)
The need is real. Few would question it. The boldness of the plan is that it would tackle more than one issue; not only would it renovate or replace outdated facilities, it would also address issues of under-capacity that hamstring the district from building new schools in the developing areas of the county.
That, of course, was going to cause community pushback like what immediately came from the alumni of Raines and Ribault High Schools.
It’s hard to close a school in Jacksonville. That is why many remain open even when it is obvious that consolidation is needed. The advantage to the plan is that, where consolidation is needed, it proposes to merge the schools into a new location so nobody has to feel that somebody won and they lost.
The hard question is how to pay for it. The School Board would like Jacksonville citizens to agree to pay an extra half-cent in sales tax for 15 years.
And now we enter the bizarro world of Florida school politics where power is everything, there’s a whole lot of public dough available for profiteers, and everyone’s scrambling for a piece of the pie even as a lot of Dudley Do-rights try to stop them.
There’s a lot of fodder for many blog posts, this is Jacksonville, Florida after all, but we do have the inimitable A.G. Gancarski of Folio Weekly and Florida Politics fame to do the muckraking. What GOT wants to focus on is the timing.
The timing is terrible. The ink is barely dry … oh, let’s refresh the cliche for our techno times … the characters are hardly typed on the screen when the school board rushes ahead to schedule a referendum for November.
The reasoning is simple even when not stated. The legislature passed a new law, taking effect on January 1, 2020, that all future tax referendums must be placed on a general election ballot. If the November referendum does not happen, the voters will not get to decide for a year and a half, which will delay the new funding for at least a year, maybe two.
Then again, the legislature did not approve a proposal that a two-thirds supermajority is needed to pass local tax referendums, but most experts expect that this idea will resurface in next year’s session. If that happens, no additional tax proposals will ever pass. Two-thirds is a threshold too high. It has never happened even for the Better Jacksonville Plan.
If the vote doesn’t take place now, it never will.
Thus, GOT understands why the School Board is moving ahead even as the details of the plan are not final.
Yet, GOT also understands why the city’s politicians are reluctant to get on board until more is known and the details are worked out.
It’s a mess and thanks to the Florida legislature and the politicians that dominate state government, the School Board is playing a game of Calvinball, a game where the rules are made up and change on a whim so as to produce the desired result.
(Spoiler alert! That’s not to take care of the needs of Florida’s public schools. For those of you confused by the current governor’s doublespeak a la the novel 1984, those are the schools also known as traditional or neighborhood.)
There are a lot of good points on all sides. But the School Board should take note that many on the City Council, who are in charge of scheduling an election, aren’t opposed to putting a referendum on the ballot, but they want more details and a firm plan in place.
Even the mayor, whom many suspect (possibly correctly) is hostile to additional taxes, wants the schools to fail so he can take control, is controlled by the wealthy forces privatizing the nation’s schools, or all three, is right to say he cannot support a tax measure until more is known.
We are rushing ahead.
Even GOT, who is looking for assurances that charter schools won’t grab all the new funding, either by court decision or legislative fiat, before he supports a new tax, is willing to pay new school taxes if the revenue is used for the designated purpose of renovating and replacing obsolete or crumbling buildings.
It’s important to get this right. It’s important for the community to get behind the schools. That means taking the time needed to make the case.
It can be done. November is too soon.
Slow down, School Board, and build the community support you need to make this happen.