Duval Joins Lawsuit Challenging HB 7069
The Duval County Public Schools Board voted in favor of joining 10 other Florida school districts in a lawsuit that will challenge the constitutionality of HB 7069, dubbed “The Schools of Hope” bill. Governor Rick Scott signed this train-wreck of a bill into law this summer, usurping the authority of local boards and redirecting precious public school dollars to private, charter school ventures, which aren’t elected by the people. The lawsuit is coming just in time to answer some important constitutional questions—on the eve of the state Constitutional Revision process, wherein the dominant party will move to change the constitution.
As Folio Weekly predicted last spring, the bill, which passed the house but got hung up in the senate, ended up being passed as a “train” during budget negotiations. A “train” is a bill onto which lawmakers keep adding more and more stuff—stuff that didn’t make the cut when it was supposed to, in the light of day, during committee hearings that featured public input. It’s not the first time lawmakers have passed “train” legislation, behind closed doors, cramming multiple subjects into one behemoth, tyrannical act. But it is the first time the practice will be effectively challenged in court.
The plaintiff districts are expected to allege, in the yet-to-be-filed lawsuit, that the bill violates the Florida constitution’s “one subject, one bill” rule. The plaintiffs also want the court to answer important constitutional questions regarding the local authority of our elected (for now) school boards. The bill mandates that our local schools, some of which are in dire need of capital upgrades, share local property tax levies with asset-rich charter school organizations. (I maintain that the asset-to-pupil ratio for privately owned charter schools far surpasses the same ratio for our public schools.) Regardless of whether charters “need” our precious tax dollars or not to improve their long lists of real estate gems, the question of what to do with local dollars belongs with our locally elected representatives—while we still have them. (More on that later.)
Four Teachers with Guts
Duval County has seated some illustrious public servants on its local school board. We’ve had successful business people, a former mayor, and a big-time lawyer who successfully faced down Big Tobacco. But it took a group of teachers to finally stand up to Tallahassee. School Board Chairwoman Paula Wright and members Becki Couch, Lori Hershey and Warren Jones have all stood in front of classrooms, and are standing up now for our children, public education and the principles of representative democracy.
Board member Ashley Smith Juarez did a “Pontius Pilate” last Monday, conceding that the bill has problems but refusing to vote to pursue answers from a court of law. Board member Cheryl Grymes was absent, tending to a serious family medical situation. Board member Scott Shine offered the most insipid of all possible rationales for voting against the lawsuit, writing in a personal blog that we ought not “exacerbate the animosity that currently exists between public education and the legislature.”
As Polk County School Board member and writer Billy Townsend phrased it, when it comes to the Florida Legislature, “You can’t reason an abuser into stopping the abuse.”
“The record shows,” Townsend continued, “that Tallahassee is going to hit us no matter what we do.”
Home Rule and Local Control
Locally, former chairwoman and current member Couch has been leading the charge against HB 7069, on home rule grounds, since before it donned that particular numerical iteration. As a Republican and self-styled fiscal conservative sitting on a nonpartisan board, Couch is worried about the accountability and transparency for assigning tax dollars.
In a written statement to the press, Couch wrote, in part:
As a fiscal conservative I have grave concerns over the way in which over million of property tax revenue can be diverted to for profit entities with no requirement to demonstrate need and with no requirement that the buildings belong to the taxpayer (local school boards are required to demonstrate need). I have grave concern over the fact that HB7069 establishes charter schools as local education agencies (LEA) without oversight from the taxpayer through an elected board, and I have grave concern that HB7069 eliminates the representative democracy that keeps the local decision-making closest to the people.
Citizens and taxpayers should read that part about “demonstrating need” very carefully. Our local board has to jump through hoops, and rightly so, to secure the funds needed to open new schools in growing areas, for example, Nocatee.
Plans must be carefully drawn to comply with numerous state regulations for public schools. Not so for charter school real estate companies like Red Apple, the builder-landlord arm of CharterSchoolsUSA. They can erect a $7.5 million asset at the county line with the ease of a corner Walgreens or CVS—without consulting our local school board. They can even open a middle school blocks away from an “A” school in Mandarin, without all that pesky needs-assessment paperwork.
The Power Play: A Mayor-appointed School Board?
But Couch and her three like minds on the board draw the line at taxation without locally elected representation.
It’s an important stand, at an important time.
Remember Jacksonville’s last Charter Revision Commission? There was a move among that body, convened in 2010, to take the Duval County School Board out of the hands of voters and transform it into a board of mayoral appointees. The proposal would essentially award county school board governance to the city. As Duval County is likely the largest public landowner in the nation, removing governance from elected officials accountable to the voters would be a coup for the developer class in Jacksonville, aka the political donor class in Jacksonville.
The catch is, the city needs a change in the state constitution to effectuate the change in the city charter, which, in turn, would allow the city to take over the schools. Watch for new ballot initiatives toward this end on your 2018 ballot.
If all the dominoes fall into place, we’ll have a mayor, possibly second-term Mayor Lenny Curry, appointing our local school board. And we all know how he feels about who should populate his appointed boards: his cronies.
It’s a power move, backed by the prince of school privatization himself, Gary Chartrand, who continues to sweeten the PAC for Curry. The buzz around Prudential Drive has Curry showing his own sweetness toward Interim School Superintendent Patricia Willis, who took the job on the condition she would not be in the running for an appointment as Duval’s new superintendent.
Look for a campaign to keep her on for a couple of years, a plea from school board member and Republican sycophant Scott Shine to “not change horses in midstream.” That’s code for not “changing horses” before the powers-that-be can get their cronies elected to Couch’s and Wright’s seats in 2018, and thus influence the selection of the new super, assuming Shine keeps his seat—unless, of course, 2018 gives Jacksonville the thumbs-up it needs to change its own charter in 2020. If the Republican alliance can keep Willis long enough, and the appointed-school-board dominoes fall into place around 2020, they won’t have to bother with all that pesky representative democracy at all.