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Referendum Shakedown

Students at risk as political establishment demands handout for charter-school lobby

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Last Thursday, the School Board referendum issue nearly turned deadly. At Oakleaf Village Elementary, in Clay County, the air conditioning failed, causing the school to shut down for a day. News4Jax reported that some students and faculty fell ill. The report also stated that there were nearly 300 work orders in Jacksonville to fix similar problems before the start of the current school year. As local news outlets, including Folio Weekly, have reported for months now, much-needed infrastructure maintenance and repair is being blocked by city government’s refusal to proceed with a fall 2019 sales-tax referendum proposed by Duval County Public Schools.

Heat kills. The National Weather Service found that heat causes more annual fatalities than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. The New York Times reported that a heat wave in France in 2003 killed 15,000 people, most of them people living in apartments or homes without air conditioning. Yet here we are in Jacksonville, still arguing whether kids deserve air conditioning at school.

The issue was up for discussion last Tuesday when the school board and the City Council met for a workshop. During that meeting, some City Councilmembers suggested the referendum stalemate could be resolved if the school board agreed to give charter-school interests more money. It was effectively a hostage demand. Councilmember Rory Diamond called the Executive Director of KIPP Jacksonville, Jennifer Brown, to speak. She stated that charter schools receive less money than public schools for buildings and that the referendum money should “follow” the students with a per-pupil allocation.

What is KIPP? It’s a network of 242 public charter schools that was brought to Jacksonville—along with Teach for America—by Ponte Vedra-based political mega-donor Gary Chartrand. Chartrand makes his money from charter schools. Thus, it is no surprise that he is also the head of the education task force of the Civic Association, a group of wealthy Jacksonville CEOs who have opposed the referendum because it does not give enough money to charter schools.

Brown’s proposal is disingenuous. No school district in Florida allocates capital funds for maintenance based on a per-pupil formula. Indeed, a per-pupil formula makes no sense in this context. If you have to replace the roof over your house, it does not matter if your family has 5 members or 10 members. It is going to cost the same. Third, a per-pupil allocation would be unfair to public schools. As Superintendent Greene noted, under a per-pupil formula, the public school Greenleaf Pines Elementary and the charter school Waterleaf Elementary would each get $12 million, while Greenleaf needs $13 million in repairs and Waterleaf only needs $1 million.

Finally, charter schools already receive more capital funds than public schools. According to the Florida Department of Education, Duval County charter schools received about $7,893,111 million in capital funds last year, while public schools only received $2,680,072 million. That’s $5,213,039 million more for charter schools, while 87 percent of our students attend public schools.

The existing DCPS facilities plan provide funds for charter schools, but they are proportional. Charter schools could get funding for safety and security upgrades on the same square-footage basis as public schools. Second, charter schools could get money for building improvements based on the same standards that govern public schools.

The referendum is scheduled for consideration by two City Council Committees Tuesday, August 20 at 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., while the full Council is to vote on Tuesday, August 27 at 5:00 p.m. This is not a vote to approve the sales tax, but rather to allow voters to decide the issue in a special election later this year, as outlined in the Florida Constitution. If you support that document and the people’s right to have a voice, then you need to tell your councilmember now. Contact information can be found at coj.net/city-council/.

Students can get involved, too. It’s their schools that are at stake. Remember Parkland? After that shooting, it was the students who took to social media and advocated commonsense gun reforms in Tallahassee.

Finally, a quick comment on recent allegations made by Joe Peppers. The now-suspended Kids Hope Alliance CEO claims that officials in Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration pressured him to steer grants to preferred groups. Because of conflicts of interest, it is clear that local and state governmental bodies cannot investigate the Curry administration. Simply put, this is a job for the FBI. It undertook an investigation of corruption in Tallahassee city government. There needs to be a similar investigation here.

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