There are good answers to concerns about the half-cent sales tax that would address the oldest group of public school buildings in Florida.
City Council and the Duval County School Board are scheduled to discuss the matter Wednesday. When they are finished there should be an agreement to give Duval County voters the opportunity to vote this year on the multi-billion dollar proposal.
The written response by Superintendent Diana Greene to City Council's questions does an excellent job of answering them. Some of the council members may not like or trust the replies, but that doesn't change the fact that Greene's answers are thoughtful, respectful and reasonable.
Let’s take a few of the concerns.
There's no question that a special election on just one issue is likely to produce a low turnout. On the other hand it gives the public a chance to focus on one issue. And if low-information voters don’t bother to vote, would that really be the worst thing in the world?
One possible way to drive up the voting turnout is to hold the vote by mail: as Greene’s document points out, St. Lucie County had a 32 percent voter turnout with a mail-in ballot on a school referendum.
Charter school equity
The Jacksonville Civic Council insists that charter schools should receive funding on a per-student basis. But that would relegate need to a secondary status, which Greene aptly points out in writing this: “The cost of a roof replacement does not consider the number of students in the building."
And the fact is that almost every charter facility in Duval County is newer than the newest public school, Waterleaf Elementary.
So far as priorities go, all schools would receive funding for safety and security at $5 per square foot. The school district would use the same formula to assess facility needs for charter schools as it does for traditional district schools.
Meanwhile, School Board members should say publicly that they're open to sharing facility space with charters where it is feasible; this is being done in Miami and has been done for years in New York City.
How the facilities got so bad
Readers justly ask what happened to lottery funding and previous facilities funding.
Regarding the lottery money, much of it goes to college scholarships, not K-12 schools. And the small proportion of lottery funding that is received by the school district is specified by the Legislature — and it's not for facilities.
So what happened to the district’s previous facilities funding?
First, the Legislature slashed the millage that districts could assess from 2 mills in 2007 to 1.5 mills in 2009; over 10 years that amounted to a loss of $300 million.
In addition Duval is the only large urban district without an additional funding source for facilities — other districts have additional sales taxes or local millage assessments.
Many of Florida's school districts assess impact fees that help support schools in high growth areas, but Duval’s issues involve older buildings that cannot be supported by impact fees.
The Civic Council has pressed the school district to use less elaborate building requirements that are less expensive.
Greene goes to some lengths to put this in context; she notes that the stricter building standards reflect larger classroom sizes that charter schools do not need because they have enrollment caps — and because their buildings aren't used as hurricane shelters.
Timeline for construction
The plan involves constructing or replacing 28 schools and consolidating 21 schools.
Though the district does not have an exact list of buildings to be constructed, it’s clear which schools would be built first: the schools with the most glaring needs (which are largely in Northwest Jacksonville).
The schools in Northwest Jacksonville would receive nearly $1 billion worth of facility construction (or 45 percent of the total budget). This would be like a Marshall Plan for Northwest Jacksonville; it would be a huge jobs and construction program that could be an impetus to economic growth.
History tells us that consolidation has often failed to live up to its promises for Northwest Jacksonville — the school construction and jobs program would be an impressive way to right longstanding inequities.
That's why a referendum needs to go on the ballot this year.
City Council members need to get out of the business of acting like self-appointed members of the Duval County School Board — and back to the business of addressing the serious murder problem in this city.
It's time for City Council to get out of the way — and to let the people decide on the sales tax proposal.