Ron DeSantis trades sharp words with a School Board member - with his wife at the mic

Karen Perez wanted to ask about funding for school counselors. The governor objected.
First Lady Casey DeSantis, left, looks on while her husband  Governor Ron DeSantis challenges school board member Karen Perez during the Hope for Healing a mental and substance abuse initiative held Roland Park K-8 School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, May 16, 2019.  [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
First Lady Casey DeSantis, left, looks on while her husband Governor Ron DeSantis challenges school board member Karen Perez during the Hope for Healing a mental and substance abuse initiative held Roland Park K-8 School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, May 16, 2019. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published May 16, 2019|Updated May 17, 2019

TAMPA - A feel-good moment at a Hillsborough County school went sideways Thursday when an elected School Board member tried to question Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wife about state education spending.

Casey DeSantis was at Roland Park K-8, on a stage filled with students dressed in red, white and blue, to announce several new initiatives that aim to improve access to mental health and substance abuse programs.

“The goal is to let the good people of Florida know how to get meaningful help in a timely fashion that meets their needs,” the First Lady said, unveiling “Hope for Healing,” a planned directory of community resources that the state will coordinate, using corporate funding.

In addition to the directory, she said, state leaders are working across multiple agencies to evaluate existing programs. “We need accountability for the nearly $2 billion that the state spends on mental health and substance abuse,” she said, praising her husband for being “bold” on issue that concern children and families.

Reporters had been asked not to stray off topic during the question-and-answer session that followed.

But the first question came from School Board member Karen Perez, who began with a description of the limited resources inside the schools.

“Our schools continue to be underfunded in the area of mental health and we are unable to secure enough psychologists and social workers and counselors to work, especially in Hillsborough,” said Perez, a clinical social worker who joined the board in 2018.

At that point, the governor cut in and asked, “What’s your question?”

“I’m getting there,” said Perez, who was standing behind a bank of television cameras, but had identified herself as an at-large School Board member.

“Well, no, you’re not a member of the press,” DeSantis said. “What is your question?”

“Our children need to ...” Perez continued, and then the governor interrupted her again.

"What is your question?"

"I'm getting to it."

"No, you don't give a speech," DeSantis said.

"I'm getting to it," Perez persisted. "We need a promise from you that we can look forward to see an increase in funding."

At that point, Casey DeSantis regained control of the exchange.

“Listen,” she said. "I’ll just say I am so honored and privileged to be in this position and, for the first time in the history of this state, to bring agencies together to better address this issue.

Perez tried to ask again about funding. “Are you going to ...?”

Casey DeSantis continued.

"We are going to take a look a quick look - a long look, really - at where the money is being spent, the nearly $2 billion that we're spending statewide on mental health and substance abuse. And so if we see a need that's not being met, then I can tell you these agency heads are going to be some of the first people making sure that they're doing what they can to support children and families."

Perez explained later that she is frustrated by the fact that, despite increased spending on mental health services in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, most of the money is paid to community agencies even though students spend most of their day inside the schools.

"I hear about the agencies, but not about the schools," she said. She said the governor's response will not deter her from continuing to ask questions. "I'm going to hold their feet to the fire," she said.

She got hugs and congratulations from some of the district social services employees who were in the crowd.

But outside, board members Steve Cona and Stacy Hahn pointed out that the district is making progress toward enhancing mental health services, with support from the state. These measures include training of school staff to identify students in crisis, and partnerships with agencies that can provide counseling.

The Florida Legislature created a new funding category for school mental health services last year after the Parkland shooting left 17 people dead and shocked the state’s leaders into addressing the issue of insufficient counselors and psychologists. This year, they increased the amount of funding by $5.8 million, bringing the total to $75 million.

“The money is spent. ... It’s in statute. ... specifically in the schools," said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who was outside speaking with Cona and Hahn after the Tampa event.

"It’s for identification and treatment of mental health issues. And a certain percentage of it has to go to treatment. It was a record amount, and this year we increased it again. Ask these school board members. The money’s coming and they’re using it. There has been a massive increase of counselors and psychologists and social workers for the schools. You’re seeing that, district by district, and the funding’s only going to increase.”

A Miami Herald investigation earlier this year found that, despite the new mental health funding, most school districts were taking little action to deal specifically with suicide prevention. The report followed the loss of two student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings who took their lives a full year later. The Legislature this spring beefed up state policies outlining how districts should offer these services, ensuring that suicide prevention measures were part of districts’ plans

In his remarks at Thursday’s school event, Corcoran made a reference to the two recent deaths, noting that they happened at a time when many thought the community could begin to heal.

“You realize that a situation, caused by mental health (crisis), forever changes students lives, teachers lives, parents’ lives,” he said. This summer, he added, the Board of Education will pass a rule that gives every student five hours of youth mental health awareness training.

Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins, when asked to assess Perez’s remarks and the issue as a whole, gave a measured response.

“I think that’s been an area that we prioritized in our school district,” he said. “We’ve been historically using our (tax) dollars to support that.”

Nationwide, he said, counselor-to-student ratios are low and "we've got a long ways to go as a nation around that particular topic. We know our kids are in front of us 6, 7 hours a day."

As for how much total funding is being provided, and whether it is enough to improve the ratios, Eakins said. “that’s going to have to be a discussion at the legislative level.”

He then added, “I applaud the First Lady’s initiative here. Getting it early is the right way to go.”

Times Staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.