On June 27, the new Jacksonville City Council was installed. Congratulations to newcomers and returning champions alike. Now take up Duval County Public Schools’ proposed November referendum. Do it, and do it as soon as possible. Let the voters decide whether the half-cent infrastructure tax is justified or not.
In April, the school board recommended the tax to fund its Facilities Master Plan, a $1.9 billion, multi-year project designed to ameliorate the dire physical conditions of some of the oldest school buildings in the entire state. A November 2019 special election was proposed to decide the funding issue by referendum. Board members wanted the voters to decide what’s best.
Ever since, City Hall has obstructed. First, presumably at Mayor Lenny Curry’s behest, the Office of General Counsel issued an unsolicited opinion stating that City Council alone can authorize the referendum—in which case, it’s not happening any time soon. In this week’s Backpage Editorial (pg. 31), veteran attorney Terry D. Bork argues that said opinion is legally dubious. Indeed, according to precedent, the office should have recused itself from any consideration on ethical grounds.
Then the lame-duck City Council stonewalled while the usual PR hacks invited DCPS to buy access. City Hall suggested a 2020 referendum as a means of killing by compromise.
Local news media kept on the story, and the narrative that emerged was unflattering to City Hall: The school board presented a plan in good faith, and asked the voters to approve or not. The mayor and City Council opposed from the start. Finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, they had to employ increasingly ham-fisted tactics to stall. Council meetings took on an air of farce as members waited out concerned parents. Lenny Curry seems to fancy himself a master of multidimensional chess but, in this case, it was all very clumsy, and folks saw right through it.
The optics got even worse on June 25, when the Clay County School Board approved a similar infrastructure sales tax without any public heckling from Clay County’s Board of Commissioners.
The reasons for City Hall’s intransigence remain somewhat obscure. One solid guess is that the mayor wants to control the agenda. Another is that the charter-school lobby—including Curry mega-donors—wants to continue to starve public schools and ensure its dominance of what it sees as an education market. (Of course, the current DCPS plan does include proportional funding for charter schools, but charter-industry lobbyists want more. They always want more.)
Whatever the reasons, the mayor’s strategy is clear: Forestall a legitimate vote by hook or by crook. The new City Council can be complicit, or it can move to end this stalemate forthwith. Let the people vote.