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City Attorney: Council Must Decide 'Whether And When' School Tax Question Goes On Ballot

Lindsey Killbride

A plan put forward by Duval County Public Schools to ask voters for a ½ cent sales-tax increase to repair or replace the district’s aging school buildings through a ballot referendum may hit some roadblocks.

Related: Duval School Board Proposes Sales Tax To Repair And Replace Aging Schools

In an opinion issued Thursday, Jacksonville’s General Counsel Jason Gabriel wrote that under state law the City Council has the authority to decide “whether and when” to put the proposed sale-tax hike on the ballot and that the courts would have no say in the matter.

“There is no desire by this board to enter an adversarial relationship over this topic with the City Council, but it is important to this board that the community have an opportunity to weigh in on whether or not we want to have better safer schools for our students,” said School Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey

Gabriel’s opinion is intended to resolve confusion over whether the council’s authority was merely an administrative function, or if it could deny or revise the resolution.

He reached the conclusion, even though the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2014 case in Clay County that the county commissioners had no discretion over whether or when to put the referendum on the ballot.

Because of Duval County’s consolidation with Jacksonville, the City Council performs similar duties as compared to the Clay County Board of Commissioners.

“Relying on separation of powers analysis, courts throughout the nation and Florida have concluded that it violates separation of powers for a court to order a legislative body to adopt legislation,” wrote Gabriel in the opinion. “The Council has only one fundamental power; to adopt legislation.”

Related: Duval School District Plans Community Meetings To Discuss Aging Schools

Many school districts in Florida have imposed impact fees on developments or raised sales taxes to generate revenue.

The district has some of the oldest schools in Florida and says it needs $1.95 billion to renovate or replace its aging facilities.

“We’re spending currently a half million dollars or more a month just in maintenance repairs that don’t solve anything,” Hershey said. “They’re just Band Aid repairs to maintenance issues because we have such a large backlog.”

For instance, she said the referendum would allow the district to replace worn out air conditioning systems, rather than repairing them. The district would also be able to better address information technology needs and make schools safer, Hershey added.

If the measure makes on a ballot and voters approve the half-cent sales tax, it is projected to raise at least $1.3 billion over 15 years.  

The school board wants to hold a special election on the idea on November 5, but the Jacksonville City Council would have to approve it, according to  Hershey.

The school board will vote on the sale-tax resolution at its meeting Tuesday night. 

Abukar Adan is a former WJCT reporter who left the station for other pursuits in August 2019.