On the campaign trail with Hillsborough School Board candidate Karen Perez

Karen Perez, a social worker, is running for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Karen Perez, a social worker, is running for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published September 14 2018
Updated September 15 2018

The Tampa Bay Times was not able to interview Karen Perez during her primary campaign for Hillsborough County School Board. After she placed second in a six-way districtwide race to replace April Griffin, we invited her again to complete our questionnaire and sit for an editorial board interview.

As we have in the past, we are publishing some of her statements in that recorded interview. Perez is running against retired school district administrator Henry "Shake" Washington, who is quoted in this earlier post. She took 28 percent of the primary vote; Washington got 33 percent.

Henry “Shake” Washington is running for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board. [campaign]

Perez, 54, is a social worker at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital.

When we asked her what prompted her to run for School Board, she said:

"Far too long, the issues of mental health have not been addressed. And right now mental health is a crisis within – first of all, nationally, and within the school systems themselves. If you notice, bullying is at an all time high now because you have it on social media. Before it wasn't like that. And the children, with the guns in schools, they can bring it into the schools."

She went on to explain:

"There's three professions in the school system. You have your psychologists. You have your social workers. And the counselors. The national average is, it should be one of those professionals per 250 students. In Hillsborough County we have one of those professionals per 800 students. Hillsborough County is doing a fantastic job at not taking away any funding from those services. But they are not at the right averages to meet the need of those students."

[We calculated that, according to the district's payroll spreadsheets, there are 453 counselors including 25 college and career counselors; 196 school psychologists and 204 school social workers, for a total of 863, which works out to about one for every 250 students.]

Describing her experiences with Northside Mental Health, Hillsborough Kids and at the VA Hospital, Perez said she knows how to coordinate wraparound services. At several points in the interview, spoke about the system's failure to meet the needs of students with high intelligence.

"We  tend to not look at students that are gifted," she said. "And then when they tend to act out in the classroom, we look at them as students that are acting out. We don't say they're gifted students and maybe they're bored in the classroom. We target them as acting out students and then we label these students. And I think assessing them early on would help them in the process of their schooling."

Perez said that in her private practice, she has seen students move through the school-to-prison pipeline.

"If they act out, a lot of students also, they have their learning disabilities. They have their emotional disabilities. But many of these children also are gifted children. When they act out in the classroom, they are sent to the principal's office and they slowly start getting into this downward spiral. They end up in the courtroom because of their acting out. And the judge will say, 'you got great grades in school, what is wrong with you?' and the kid will say, 'I'm just bored.' But unfortunately, now they have a record through the system. Now they're in an alternative school because they've been expelled.. It's a problem. Now you have a kid that no longer believes in this educational system because it's kind of turned their back on them."

Using the standard candidate questionnaire, we asked her a series of questions, starting with: What would Perez do to help the district's troubled financial picture?

Her answer: "It's about the children. I'm all about, I am very pro-children. And the fact that none of the services for the children, especially their mental services, have been touched is awesome. But looking more at administrative cuts, the administration that's not hands on with the kids, that's not there, would be the ones to really look at when cutting that budget."

Would she support the half-cent sales tax referendum to raise money for capital needs in the schools?

"Yes, I would," she said. "I would. That half a cent? Yes. But I think there's the two referendums, right? The one for transportation. And I think with all the other amendments on the ballot in November, the issue is that a lot of the lay voters will look at that and say, 'wow, there's just so much going on.' To have one on the ballot now and maybe one going on in March so that people don't feel there's a major increase going on in their pocketbook? But I'm for that half a cent."

We asked her to assess the strengths of the administrators, teachers and support staff in the schools.

"I think we have fantastic staff here in Hillsborough County," Perez said. She described in detail a conversation she had  with a man whose three granddaughters relocated from West Virginia. They had been "failing miserably" in West Virginia, but the Hillsborough schools brought them all up to grade level. "I was so excited to hear that," she said.

Perez said she has eight grandchildren in the Hillsborough schools. Her three children, who were educated in Hillsborough, are all successful in their professions — as is Perez, who attended King High School.

Then she said, "we're 49th on the list of, I believe in achievement, is it?" We questioned that number and agreed that the state is more likely near the bottom in funding, and she said, "we have to just look at what is going on…. but I believe we have a fabulous education system here in Hillsborough County."

Next question: What is the appropriate role of  charter schools?

"I believe because of the overcrowded classrooms, you know, there are too many kids in the classrooms, I think that they help," she said. "They help. But as a School Board member, I'm going to continue to keep my eyes on them to make sure they're doing what they need to do as far as what their promises are. You know, but I think there is a role for them in our district."

[Another note: Although we hear anecdotes lately of more crowded classrooms, Hillsborough has long prided itself in sticking closely to the state's class size limits.]
We asked what she believes can be done about racial and ethnic disparities and achievement.

"As a social, worker, I get kids in my clinic from age .. my youngest patient right now is 3 years old," she said. "And when they sit with me, and they talk about being bullied, when they talk about not being able to make friends, when they talk about having nightmares about going to school, the issues of race… I believe the teachers, they get courses in diversity. They get courses in learning and engaging and being able to work well with others. But I think we miss out when we don't help our children learn that. The LGBT community with our children…. I have never seen bullying and the level of hate in our system so high as it is today. You used to be able to sit down with someone and talk. Today it's just not at that place any more. And I'm wondering if there's something on our education system that's missing, or maybe we need to go back to some kind of basic to be able to get our children to learn communication with each other."

We tried to redirect the conversation to the racial gaps in achievement and she returned to the issue of aptitude testing. She'd like to test children when they first enter the schools. "Something to be able to find out where they are and start them where they are. That will help them with their ability to learn.

"Like the gifted," she continued. "There's a lot of kids that start off already knowing and we start them off in kindergarten and then they get frustrated and then they start acting out in class. And then those kids get labelled,  whether they're black, whether their brown or whether they're Caucasian children. And then from there, then that kind starts a domino affect later."

She went on to say that the files might reflect that a child's second, third and fourth grade teachers all described poor behavior stemming from the fact that the child learned basic literacy skills as a small child at home.

We returned to the issue of funding, and Perez said it is important to pressure the legislators to restore district's ability to assess a full $200 for every $100,000 of home value, instead of the current limit of $150.

Finally, we asked: What do you bring to the table that distinguishes you from your opponent?

"I started my community service in Hillsborough County from the age of 16," she said. "I've affected change in a lot of people's lives. In my private practice alone last year, my pro bono work, I've provided $26,000 worth of mental health counseling to children. And that's just last year by itself. When a parent comes to me and says, 'my child needs help and I can't afford it, I say, 'Did I ask if you could pay or not? He's going to start his services.' And then I go also to offer the services in their homes because when a child needs help, it's just not about you coming to my office and me sitting and talking to you. I do a full assessment. I am out providing counseling at on Sunday mornings. When you call me, you will find me at somebody's house giving a child services. For me, making  difference in a child's life didn't just happen yesterday. This has been ongoing for years and years and years.

"If I had been an administrator for  a school, you would have seen that change. You would have seen a change in the schools that I was administrator for. If I would have been an administrators for the schools, those schools would have been  A and  B schools."