GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The August 2018 Primary Election pitted tax hawks against the need for improved public-school security and ended with mixed results for incumbents and newcomers alike.
With a 27.3 percent turnout, Clay County voters approved a four-year, one mill property tax increase to fund school security and infrastructure improvements in the wake of a lack of state funding. The measure passed 21,603 to 18,416. Overall, 41,081 voters out of the county’s 151,423 registered voters cast ballots in the Aug. 28 election.
On the Clay County School Board, first-term incumbent Betsy Condon was defeated by former board member Tina Bullock in the District 3 race by a vote of 20,250 to 17,512.
“I am honored to serve the children of Clay County,” said Bullock at an election night celebration in Orange Park.
Condon defeated Bullock in 2104 after Bullock was elected in 2012 to complete former school board member Charlie Van Zant Jr.’s term on the school board. Bullock, a long-time Clay County educator, retired from the district as principal of Keystone Heights Junior-Senior High School.
Bullock teamed up on the campaign trail with incumbent Janice Kerekes and political newcomer Lynne Hirabayashi Chafee under the moniker of JLT. Chafee, a Guardian ad Litem children’s advocate, will be in a runoff in November with first-term District 5 school board member incumbent Ashley Gilhousen, the top two vote getters in a three-way race. Gilhousen received 18,397 votes, Chafee received 11,134 and Travis Christensen received 8,158.
“In the next 10 weeks, we’re going to hit it hard and we’re going to make it happen,” Chafee said.
Chafee, whose adult children grew up attending Clay County public schools, said she is determined to help continuing to improve the lives of children and that’s why she got in the race.
“Children are my passion. I want to give back. I don’t like what’s going on and we can sit and talk about it or you can do something, and I just decided to do something,” Chafee said.
Meanwhile, District 1 school board incumbent Kerekes defeated Latanya Peterson by a vote of 22,103 or 57.75 percent to 16,171 or 42.25 percent of the vote.
“It’s really exciting that everyone came out and voted for me again – it’s humbling, it really is,” Kerekes said. “It’s an honor to do what we do and serve our community, so I’m really and truly blessed. People got out and worked so hard for me and I couldn’t do it without them, I really couldn’t.”
Kerekes was one of the school board members who fought for the one-mill at the same time she was up for re-election. She said it was a risk she was willing to take to improve safety for the students.
“The children, the school district – that’s the real winner here. We’re going to be able to go forward and have the resource officers we need,” Kerekes said.
The one mill increase is estimated to bring in $10 million a year, half of which is the estimated cost of arming each of the district’s 42 schools with trained officers, a state requirement in the aftermath of the February shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.
“This is the voters – they spoke up and said they value public education and they are willing to increase their property taxes to cover the expense of public education,” Kerekes said.
While he was involved in the election only as an observer, School Superintendent Addison Davis said he agrees with Kerekes’ statement that the students won this election.
“Overall, I think the kids were the winners. I say that because openly and honestly, I didn’t know if the millage was going to pass, but we did a good job educating the community on how the money was going to be spent,” Davis said.
Davis said the tax will not be collected for the first time until December 2019 and the school district will not have possession of the funds until January 2020 at the earliest, so it will still be up to the district to fund school security with normal sources up until that time.
“It’s my job, when I work with the board, to make sure we are fiscally responsible to develop a balanced mechanism to use the funding properly within the organization,” Davis said. “I am grateful and thankful for our constituents – now it’s time to be extremely strategic and intentional so our community can see the return on their investment.”
Davis said once the one mill funds come in, he will prepare a report to the community that will explain where the funds have been spent so there will be transparency on the issue.
Teachers mobilized to help campaign for Kerekes, Chafee and Bullock. Renna Lee Paiva, president of the Clay County Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers, echoed Kerekes’ and Davis’ sentiments on the election results.
“The real winners were the children of Clay County – they were real winners. We got the taxes and the raise in the millage and that’s exactly what we wanted to happen because that’s how we can have security for the kids – sounder security and also help with the operations, Paiva said.
“I mean Mr. Davis walked into a situation where there was $300 million worth of repairs [needed] in our school system. No one has ever done the infrastructure and that’s what we need to do.”
The general election is Tuesday, November 6, 2018.