Duval County Schools Sales Tax: Officials celebrate sweeping win

Emily Bloch
Florida Times-Union
Duval Schools officials celebrate sales tax win at River City Brewing Company watch party

With more than 67 percent of votes in favor, Duval County's public schools across the county will receive $1.9 billion in public funding for school maintenance and new technology in the form of a half-cent sales tax. 

School board members, education stakeholders and Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene watched poll numbers stream in Tuesday evening at River City Brewing Company in Southbank. 

"Instructionally, our schools are now an incredible asset to our community, and as we rebuild them structurally, they will be a major economic driver when we need it most," Superintendent Greene said at the watch party.

With 94 percent of precincts reporting, 312,956 Duval County voters were in favor of the sales-tax while 151,775 (32 percent) voted against it. 

The sales tax won with a hefty lead, but things weren't always that easy. 

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The referendum for a half-cent sales tax for Duval County Public Schools took nearly a year to get on ballots. The funds collected from it are intended to settle decades of maintenance backlog

In 2019, the School Board approved a $1.9 billion master plan for school repairs, construction and new technology.

According to the master plan, the money collected over the next 15 years from the sales tax referendum would fund new builds — including 19 new elementary schools, three new high schools — security and technology enhancements across all of the school district's campuses and repairs to faulty air conditioners and leaky roofs districtwide. 

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But the process stalled within City Council meetings, eventually pushing the School Board to sue the city. The court battle centered on whether the school district had the right to place the tax on ballots without City Council getting involved. By February of this year, the groups settled outside of court and City Council approved the ballot item. 

Education stakeholders said the tax was long overdue, arguing that the tax would not only fund better and safer learning environments but would also lead to new jobs and better real estate value throughout Jacksonville. 

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, approval for the school sales tax was solid, with 69 percent of registered voters in support. The support was also largely bi-partisan. A poll conducted by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab revealed 52 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of unaffiliated voters were in support. 

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Still, support hasn't been universal. Signs in favor of the sales tax were countered by lawn signs that said "NOW IS NOT THE TIME."

The group behind the yard signs and website — nohalfcentsalestax.org — was not registered as a political committee, which state law requires for expenditures of more than $500. Jacksonville resident Pat Geer said the opposing movement was comprised of a handful of people who wanted to show that not everyone is in favor of the tax. 

Geer and fellow critics asked why Florida Lottery money isn't being used for the desired school improvements (that money can't be allocated for maintenance or construction) and why the school district let things get so bad in the first place. 

Over the years, the Times-Union has documented the surmounting issues that faced Duval County Public Schools' 160-plus campuses, including leaky roofs, broken air-conditioning systems and crumbling infrastructures.

According to the district, Duval County Public Schools has $384 million in deferred maintenance. Officials say the cost to maintain the school buildings — which are among the oldest in Florida — continues to grow. 

Supporters for the sales tax have included students, parents and educators across Jacksonville.

Former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, former Sheriff Nat Glover Jr. and former School Board chairwoman Martha Barrett served as "honorary co-chairs" for the Duval Citizens for Better Schools committee — one of two committees formed in support of the sales tax. The second committee, Together for All Our Students, has promoted the sales tax with a series of television ads starring Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

Together, the committees raised more than $1.7 million to channel toward passing the tax. 

Approval of the sales tax for schools would add a half-cent to the city's sales tax starting Jan. 1, boosting the total sales tax to 7.5 cents in Duval County. The referendum is the first time the School Board has gone to the community for a sales tax. The school district said the tax would cost about $6 per month for the average household. 

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"Much of the credit goes to the School Board who took the risk and demonstrated leadership and resolve every step of the way," Greene said during her remarks at the watch party. "I also want to thank the community for rallying behind our schools, teachers, staff, and leaders."

"The vote reflects the tremendous work our schools have done to improve student outcomes," she added. "People invest in organizations going in the right direction, and I am very thankful for the community’s support."