The Duval School Board’s request for the Jacksonville City Council to put a half-cent sales tax before voters is gaining some traction.
Councilman Reggie Gaffney and schools Superintendent Diana Greene held a public meeting Wednesday to discuss the proposal, as well as Greene’s newly announced alternative facilities master plan.
Including Gaffney, three of the seven councilmembers at the meeting said they will back the referendum, with three more saying they will consider it.
The measure needs 10 votes to pass the 19-member council, and Gaffney said he thinks the votes will be there when the full council is expected to weigh in at the end of June.
“I will continue to do what I can do on my end and let each one of my colleagues know how important it is. The loser is the kids,” he said. “Last night, I heard about four or five of these young kids came up and begged us as leaders and said, 'We need better schools.'”
Students were among nearly 70 residents who urged the council to allow the sales tax referendum at Tuesday’s meeting.
But critics of the plan, like Mayor Lenny Curry, have said they’re worried holding a special election is too costly. Others, like incoming Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, have said they wouldn't support a vote on the sales tax until after they'd thoroughly examined the school district's finances.
The proposed November 5 election is expected to cost between $700,000 and $1.4 million, according to the district. That money would come from the Duval County School District’s budget.
“Since you’re going to pay for it, I want to have it this year,” said Councilman Jim Love, who, along with Gaffney and Incoming Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri, is working to win council support for the referendum. “I want people to vote for it this year because it’ll cost $80 million dollars of money we’re not going to get.”
The sales tax is projected to generate about $80 million a year, for a total of at least $1.3 billion over 15 years. The district says it needs nearly $2 billion to overhaul old facilities.
“Every month we spend close to $500,000 in maintenance,” said Greene, who points out the election is a much cheaper alternative. “And for every month that we continue to not have the opportunity to put this on the ballot will continue to incur costs.”
Duval has the oldest schools in Florida, with about 65 percent of its buildings more than 50 years old. The problem is concentrated in school districts 3, 4 and 5.
Those districts account for 61.9 percent of the needed repairs, according to the facilities master plan. School Board members Ashley Smith Juarez, Darryl Willie and Warren Jones, who represent those districts, lobbied for the bill alongside Gaffney on Wednesday.
“It is the urgency of now,” said Smith Juarez. “The waiting, the pushing it off, the, 'Maybe more revenues will come,' has been going on for years, and we don’t have time to wait.”
The referendum is scheduled to be considered by the finance and rules committees on June 18 before the full council is expected to vote on the proposal on June 25. That is the last council meeting of the fiscal year.