Duval Schools Chair: City’s Tax Referendum Discussion ‘Feels More Like Extortion’

Jul 31, 2019

Duval County Public Schools Board Chair Lori Hershey said Wednesday she believes the City of Jacksonville's controversial involvement in the school board's struggle to get a half-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot this fall "feels more like extortion, as well as being held hostage."

Hershey made the comments during a Wednesday interview on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

"I believe that when things are not moving forward, and there continues to be a demand for X amount of money to be set aside for charter schools, that it does begin to feel like a pay-to-play sort of situation, which is very concerning," she said.

Our news partner the Florida Times-Union this week reported that Mayor Lenny Curry's recently retired chief administrator Sam Mousa and his partner Tim Baker reached out to School Board Vice Chair Warren Jones and offered their political consulting services to get the referendum before the voters. Their terms: Hire Mousa and Baker, push the referendum back from this year to 2020, and promise local charter schools an up-front payment of $150 million.

Related: Listen to the full interview with Hershey

Hershey confirms she was sent a written proposal from the consulting team, who proposed charging up to $12,500 per month for their services over a period of several years to lobby city officials and build a public awareness campaign for the referendum.

According to Hershey, "That number has gone up higher. I recently heard yesterday it was $250 million dollars. So I think that there's been some slide in that number."

The proposal for a half-cent sales tax referendum is designed to pay for badly needed improvents to the district's aging schools, which are some of the oldest in the state. 

Hershey said she understands the position of charter school supporters and their advocacy for allotting some funding from a potential referendum for the several dozen charters teaching students across Duval County. 

However, "I do not feel like this request for money is from the charter schools that are here. I believe it's for charter schools that will be coming to our city, in particular, the IDEA charter schools. They plan to have a presence in this community," she said.

IDEA Public Schools, a nonprofit charter school system originally based out of Rio Grande Valley, Texas, confirmed it intends to open schools in Jacksonville in the next few years. Begnning in 2021, the campuses will start operating as Florida’s “Schools of Hope,” popping up in areas with failing schools.

"I'm beginning to wonder if it's for charter schools that will be coming in the future. Again, these dollars are to address facility needs that we have been unable to address for decades. And charter schools when they come, they're going to be new. So a school like IDEA could benefit. There's over $240 million dollars set aside in a state account that can only be used by them," she said.

Under the DCPS Master Facilities Plan, both charter and traditional public schools would be apportioned funds based on square footage to address school safety and security needs, Hershey said. 

"So we do want to take care of our charter school partners. But we also keep in mind that we did an extensive facilities report. And we would be asked that charter schools would do a similar report to identify their facility needs just as we did, versus setting aside money without giving direction on how it's spent."

Hershey also questioned the true motivation behind the referendum's seeming opponents.

"I have often asked myself, is this fight to get a date on a ballot, becoming bigger than just a date on the ballot and more of a push to privatize public education in Duval County? That's a question I often ask myself. Since when is the right for voters to weigh in and make a decision about our schools about their local government? Since when is that something that isn't allowed? I mean, I've talked to a lot of City Council members, and they say, we recognize the need and we support it. And then my question is, why can't you give me a date, which is for the voters to weigh in?" 

Despite Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan telling the Times-Union this week the timeline for a November referendum is too short to put the issue before the voters in 2019, Hershey said she'd still like to get the matter on a ballot in December, if possible.

She added, the board is prepared to take legal action if mediation with city attorney Jason Gabriel fails to bring any new momentum on the issue. 

"We have gotten to a point that we have got to take the bull by the horns and address these issues, in order to ensure that public education continues to rise in Jacksonville," she said.

Melissa Ross can be reached at mross@wjct.org, 904-358-6382 or on Twitter at @MelissainJax.