School Board Attorneys: 'Improper' And 'Illegal' To Block Sales Tax Vote

Sep 10, 2019

Three high-profile Jacksonville lawyers representing the Duval County School Board say their goal is simple.

"The only mission we have is to get the proposal on the ballot and let the taxpayers decide," said attorney Hank Coxe Tuesday during an appearance on WJCT's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

Coxe joined the show, along with attorney Scott Cairns of McGuire Woods, and attorney Audrey Moran, a former mayoral candidate and senior vice president at Baptist Health. The high-powered trio said they intend to move quickly to get the question before a judge "as quickly as possible" and, ultimately, ensure a public referendum on the proposed half-cent sales tax for Duval County Public Schools improvements.

Related: Listen to the full interview with Cairns, Coxe and Moran on Tuesday's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross

"I became a lawyer because I hate bullies," said Moran. "And the law allows you to provide a forum where the facts can be laid out in a dispassionate way. And a judge, a neutral arbiter, can make a decision about very important issues. We believe this issue is critical for the future of public education in Duval County. The school system is desperate for better infrastructure to house and educate our children in this community. And all that's being asked at this point is to let the voters vote. And the voters have been blocked from voting. We believe that was improper and illegal,” she said.

The City Council last month voted to withdraw a bill that would have placed the matter on the ballot for county voters this year, by a vote of 15-4, after questions arose, including odds over how much of the sales tax revenue would be apportioned to the county's privately operated charter schools.

The attorneys, who are representing the school district pro bono, previously sent a letter to city attorney Jason Gabriel demanding he “immediately withdraw” his legally binding opinion on how much control City Council has over a proposed half-cent sales tax for schools. He declined.

The School Board’s proposed half-cent sales tax would last 15 years and pay for a large portion of its $1.9 billion master facilities plan. The money would be used to replace or repair school buildings, among the oldest and most dilapidated in Florida. The district also wants to eliminate portable buildings and pay for safety and security upgrades at all campuses.

Cairns, whose firm McGuire Woods has handled other education funding disputes, says the trio's role is "very narrow."

"We looked at the statute that's involved here, which simply says that if the School Board does a resolution seeking to have a sales surtax, that the City Council ‘shall put it on the ballot.’ The initial opinion that we saw, which was an informal opinion, said, ‘P.S.’—  the colloquial phrase — ‘shall’ means 'may.' We think that view is wrong. As lawyers, we are not involved in the merits of whether the school referendum should be passed. It's simply whether it's put on the ballot. So all of those issues about what's wrong with the school plan, what's right with the school plan, that's really not our role here,” she said.

Coxe, a former president of the Florida Bar who has taken on high-wattage pro bono cases in the past, expressed frustration with the way Gabriel had communicated with School Board members.

"I consider a letter from the general counsel to the School Board members, telling them that if they continue on the path they're headed, and if it costs money, for whatever reason, in the retention of lawyers, that is coming out of their individual pockets — when you are telling the world that they are your client, they can't be our client, they're your client, why are you threatening them in the public arena? With that, and then to follow that up with a letter to us, telling us about all the different Florida Bar rules that we’re in jeopardy of violating if we continue on the path we’re to continue? Well, I think Scott, Audrey would agree professionally, that's unpleasant. That's not the way we practice law,” Coxe said.

Although the window for a referendum might have closed for this year, Cairns still expressed some hope.

"I think we still have the opportunity for a mail-in ballot for 2019," he said.

Added Moran: "There is a real urgency to this issue. There are children in school without air conditioning, there are children in school without drywall. There are children who are in conditions that they cannot learn in. And so this isn't something that's a little extra for kids. This is basic necessities. And so there is a sense of urgency around it."

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