The much-ballyhooed meeting between the City Council and the School Board was a failure, and now this controversy should go to court.
COMMENTARY | Who could have foreseen it? Who could have possibly predicted it?
What were the odds that a meeting between 26 elected officials would produce no progress, no answers and serve no discernible purpose other than allowing a few folks to strut around in front of television cameras like peacocks?
City Council President Scott Wilson means well, but his good-natured hope a joint meeting Wednesday between his colleagues and Duval County School Board members would smooth over a months-long controversy was simply never going to happen.
The group failed to make any meaningful progress on the school district's desire to have a 2019 election on a proposed half-cent sales tax, despite a few passing attempts at feel-good dialogue in the end. One council member summed up the mood well when she questioned whether school officials showed up in good faith: Everyone believes everyone else showed up in bad faith, and they may all be right.
At this rate, the school district's facilities will look like Roman ruins before the sales-tax proposal ever makes it to the ballot. That's right — just on the ballot. Even though it might have looked like these people were debating the fate of the universe, the only thing the School Board needs the City Council to do is put its requested sales-tax on the ballot for voters to ultimately decide.
The City Council needs to stop this charade and vote the School Board's request down — that way, this controversy can finally head to court. The city's top attorney squandered his credibility on this issue, and Mayor Lenny Curry is off watching the Jaguars practice (literally, he was there — again — during work hours Tuesday). A judge needs to figure this mess out.
This has been a shameful, gross display, and School Board member Warren Jones was right to comment Wednesday that the entire controversy has racial overtones. That apparently upset the ever-flummoxed City Councilman Al Ferraro — who is white — but he needed to hear it.
The school buildings in the most dire need of repair are in Northwest Jacksonville — communities the city left behind decades ago. A bulk of the sales tax revenue would go toward repairing these facilities, a much-needed public works bonanza for those neighborhoods and a small down payment toward fixing a city that is still, for all practical purposes, segregated.
Wilson, the council president, has said he just has questions he wants answered, and who couldn't object to that as a prerequisite for moving the School Board's desired referendum forward?
Here's the problem: The City Council made it clear Wednesday it has far more than questions. The real issue is several members are School Board wannabes, and that is why this thing is going nowhere.
Several members pressed schools officials to share any sales-tax revenue on a per-pupil basis with Duval County charter schools. In their eyes, this is a modest concession the School Board should make.
This is no mere concession. It would amount to a major re-tooling of local education policy, and it's a legally questionable use of sales tax proceeds that are, by law, to be used on maintenance and infrastructure — not paying rent to private landlords.
Right now, the school district has prioritized spending the money based on where the maintenance needs are, and since most of the oldest charter schools are newer that the newest public schools, it's no great surprise where most of the money is going. This is completely sensible and necessary — again, a major benefit of this plan is the long-needed spending that would take place in neglected neighborhoods.
Giving money on a per-pupil basis — rather than based on maintenance needs — to charters could shift hundreds of millions of dollars away from aging public school buildings.
"What you're asking for is essentially a blank check for charter schools and I'm not hearing the same level of questioning for how charter schools will use that money," School Board member Elizabeth Andersen said during Wednesday's meeting.
Charter boosters once preached the gospel of free enterprise. The whole point was that charter schools could provide the same or better service than traditional public schools, but at a lower cost to taxpayers because they have access to private capital. In the process, public schools will face competition and everyone will improve. How nice.
Now that the school district wants a revenue stream to pay for neglected public school buildings, however, charters no longer want to be treated as competition. They want not just an equal slice of the taxpayer pie but a whopping disproportionate piece. They want, in other words, the public school system to water down its competitive advantage so charters can play, too. Some competition, huh?
The city has disrespected school officials for months. Others have already noted this, but it bears repeating again and again: The school system has done a far better job tackling the graduation rate than the city has addressing the murder rate (Jacksonville surpassed 100 homicides this week, the fastest ever the city has reached this point in the 14 years the Times-Union has tracked that data). Oh, and remember that consulting contract from the mayor's friends the School Board turned down? Any chance the acrimony in City Hall is in any way related to that?
Few people in City Hall seem to possess the capacity for self-reflection, however, so the School Board faces an endless barrage of "questions" and "concerns," all while the city attorney uses a Bible story to justify the improper role the council has taken by refusing to place the sales-tax issue on the ballot.
Jacksonville has one of the few school districts in the state of Florida with no dedicated revenue source for building maintenance. We have expected them to play at a disadvantage, and despite that the overall district is just four points shy of an "A" rating from the Florida Department of Education.
The next time both of these sides meet, it should be in a courtroom.
Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.
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