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Charter funding still stalls Duval school tax scheme

A long-awaited joint meeting between the Duval County School Board and the Jacksonville City Council finally took place.

Another matter entirely is whether the Wednesday morning gathering resolved a single material difference. Both bodies are still far apart on when (or if) a sales tax referendum should happen.

And what it should fund.

The School Board wants the Council to ratify a referendum this year, in caution that the requirements for tax referendums thresholds may be raised on the state level by a reboot of 2019’s HB 5, which contemplated a supermajority requirement at one point.

Many members of the Council agree with Mayor Lenny Curry, finding holes in the district case for a 2019 vote. The city’s general counsel says it’s Council’s call, with an opinion pending from Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Curry floated this week the idea of an elected superintendent and board chair; though it has yet to find traction with Council, it illustrated the politics at hand.

This beef has slow-cooked all summer. By the time these two legislative bodies met to hash out differences, it was falling off the bone.

Board Chair Lori Hershey noted that the plan was an “infrastructure plan,” not for new schools but to address persistent capital needs.

Hershey noted the district is starved of impact fees and other city/county funding that neighboring areas enjoy.

Council members had their say, and the greatest skeptics tend to side with the Mayor.

A major concern in both parties: Not enough money for charter schools. The Jacksonville Civic Council floated a document saying that characterization and charter building standards would cut costs and stretch the budget, a contention resisted by the board and Superintendent Diana Greene.

Republican newcomer Ron Salem wondered why the uniform building code, one employed by charters but historically seen as too shoddy for public schools, wasn’t in play. Salem also quibbled with the district’s enrollment projections, saying they were too optimistic. Finally, the Councilman stressed the importance of giving charters a bigger cut.

“We embrace charter schools,” Greene contended, noting four more are coming in by 2021, and that charters get PECO dollars and are newer anyway.

“The school district through its millage is required to keep them whole,” Greene said about the chance that PECO might plunge.

“Charter schools are the elephant in the room,” asserted Democrat Tommy Hazouri, pushing for a better carveout for the sector.

Republican Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber took issue with deferred maintenance and an elastic timeline for repairs, wanting the programming broken out by fiscal years. Timetable concerns were not unique to the first-term Southside Councilwoman.

Greene noted that the “methodology” of what schools go first would be predicated on “safety and security.”

Democratic Councilwoman Brenda Priestly-Jackson, a former School Board chair, noted that the school inventory was out of whack because of overbuilding when the county resisted school integration.

“If we save Duval County schools, I don’t know how we exclude any providers,” Priestly-Jackson said.

Democratic School Board member Warren Jones echoed her thoughts regarding segregation but saw the solution differently.

“Whether they were built inferior or not maintained, our schools need help,” Jones said. “We are investing dollars in those older neighborhoods for the first time in the city’s history.”

Jones suggested the charter school contention was a smokescreen for racial bias, with inner-city schools providing a “19th-century learning environment.”

Democratic Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman called for a “repurposed plan” that addresses urban school issues, including closures of older schools with smaller student populations.

“The more delay, the more decay,” said Republican Councilman Matt Carlucci, a once and future mayoral hopeful, arguing for a 2019 vote against all odds.

Republican Councilman Rory Diamond spotlighted inequities and perennially-failing schools, before calling Dr. Jennifer Brown from the KIPP school for the “charter perspective.”

The crowd groaned.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney, a supporter of a 2019 vote, all but said the two bodies were talking past each other.

“We’re all waiting for somebody else to give in,” said the second-term Democrat.

Council President Scott Wilson questioned school closures in his district that may surprise his constituents, suggesting “community conversations.”

“I don’t see how the School Board and the City Council can pass this in 2019,” Wilson said, wanting “legwork.”

While Democrat Garrett Dennis urged the Council to be “bold” and vote it up, Dennis hasn’t driven consensus on the dais in a while. That said, a remnant of Council members agreed with him, though they don’t have critical mass on the committees of reference.

School Board members chastised the Council for inaction — but to no avail.

“It’s not your job to tell the School Board how to do its work,” said Cheryl Grimes.

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