IN a surprise twist of local politics, the Rules Committee of the Jacksonville City Council voted 5 – 2 to defer the School Board’s sales tax referendum after the Finance Committee had voted earlier in the day to advance the proposal.
Surprising some say, because many persons are members of both 7-member committees: Greg Anderson (also chair of Finance), Lori Boyer, Bill Gulliford. Anderson, in particular, confused observers because he voted to defer the referendum in the morning (Finance meeting), but voted against deferring the referendum in the afternoon’s Rules meeting.
In the morning, the Finance Committee met for 90 minutes. A motion to defer the proposal failed after a long discussion. NE Florida Realtors spoke in support of the 2019 date as well as State Sen. Audrey Gibson. Superintendent Greene described the more than 20 community meetings that had taken place. Teri Brady, DTU president, was present and spoke to the long-running nature of the issue.
Gulliford spoke to the timing and was favoring a deferral to give time to build public support in a city known for its anti-tax leanings.
Jeanne Miller, Jacksonville Civic Council: Let’s quote the actual record from the minutes: the Civic Council agrees with the importance of and needs of the school district and wants a sales tax referendum to be successful when held. The financial numbers on the sales tax revenues and the building needs don’t seem to add up. Civic Council urges that the district’s capital plan comply with 4 principles: 1) construction should adhere to the state’s standard school building codes; 2) use actual enrollment trends, taking charter school enrollment into account; 3) charter schools should get a fair shot at receiving a portion of the sales tax funding; and 4) the district needs to ensure that the referendum succeeds, which requires a fully vetted building and financing plan approved by the School Board and with substantial community buy-in that doesn’t yet exist.
Michelle Begley, finance expert for the school board, explained the decline in school board revenue from both state and local sources and how that has created challenges for the school budget and maintenance of buildings.
More discussion on a deferral centered around committee members supporting the sales tax, but undecided on whether a November 2019 ballot would be successful. Some, Boyer among them, thought the plan was incomplete.
The minutes show that the incomplete thought regarded the financial details of projected tax revenue to support the bond issue contemplated: [$500,000,000 at the outset to accelerate the timing of the capital projects whereas the tax is estimated to bring in about $80,000,000 each year. GOT note.]
Stephen Durden, Office of General Counsel, noted that the timing was tight for the Supervisor of Elections to organize polling for the referendum and it might be limited to polling precincts only, leaving out early voting and vote by mail options. He said the Supervisor would attend the afternoon’s Rules Committee meeting.
In the end, the motion to defer failed by a 4 to 3 vote.
Subsequently, two amendments were considered and approved: first, to change the ballot date to November 2020 (Morgan proposal, 6 to 1 approved, Boyer opposed); second, to require the city’s Joint Planning Committee to review the school board’s master facility plan and provide an ‘advisory recommendation’ to both the council and the school board (Anderson proposal, 7 to 0 approved.)
At the conclusion, perhaps ironically, Peggy Sidman, Deputy General Counsel, warned that the Joint Planning Committee is an advisory body only with no power to bind either the City Council or the School Board.
On to the Rules Committee: At this one, Boyer proposed deferring the referendum, not as to its date, but as to committee action as she argued that the incoming city council members should be the ones to decide. More persons, whose names were not recorded in the minutes, questioned the financial details and wanted more time to examine the school board’s plans. Charter schools were mentioned although it was also mentioned that they had much newer buildings [as a whole] than the school board.
The minutes are much more circumspect than the Finance Committee’s minutes (you can find them here), but the gist of the back-and-forth with Hazouri claiming a lack of due diligence on the financial issues and the superintendent and school board chair arguing that the plan cannot wait, other Florida districts have benefited from a school capital needs sales surtax, and that the voters should decide.
With that, the Rules Committee voted to defer the proposal, which means their next consideration, at the earliest, will be in late July.
(The above is a summarization of the public record. GOT would like to add an editorial note that he appreciates how swiftly the City Council website provides minutes of committee meetings. Sometimes, it’s a long wait until the school board website does the same.)