Fiscally responsible Karen Brill fights for children and parents
Why does District 3 School Board Vice Chair Karen Brill feel such an affinity for parents? As the mother of two children, one with special needs, Brill’s entrée into the Palm Beach County School System nearly three decades ago resulted from shocking events she never anticipated.
At the time, her son was a low-functioning autistic. When Brill enrolled him in preschool at Galaxy Elementary School, “he didn’t speak, he didn’t stand still, and he wandered around,” she recalls. “I was able to put him in preschool through the Palm Beach County public schools, in addition to procuring some private services. I missed what we call ‘kindergarten roundup.’ So, I called the school and informed the assistant principal that my son was in a pre-K program at Galaxy Elementary School, and I needed to enroll him in Kindergarten.”
When Brill confirmed her son had a disability, the assistant principal replied, “We don’t take kids like that,” and abruptly hung up the phone. Having relocated from the East Ramapo School District in New York, Brill wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” The next day, she went to the school and asked for a tour, pretending she’d just moved to the county. Shortly thereafter, her daughter, who is on the gifted spectrum but was challenged in regular classes, came home crying when a classroom aide insisted she was spelling her name incorrectly.
“At that point, I became an advocate,” Brill says, noting that the school district has come a long way with special ed. Still, she recalls incidents where her son was taped to a chair and locked in a closet for art. “I had filed more complaints against the state than anyone when he was young, and I won,” she notes.
Today, Matthew, now thirty-two, is a high-functioning autistic who works two jobs and drives. However, Brill’s advocacy, especially for children with special needs, is stronger than ever. “I got involved, not only for my son and kids with disabilities but for all families,” she explains. “We have this enormous school district, and parents don’t know where to go. They don’t know that if they object to material or have trouble with a teacher, there is a process they can follow.”
Inspired by her experience with her two children, Brill initially ran for school board in 2010 as a parent. “I’m a business person, not an educator,” she says. “But the School Board lacked a strong advocate for parents and children, even though some school board members at the time were parents. I ran because I felt that Palm Beach County parents needed a voice.”
Brill contemplated running for school board around 10 years before she jumped in, preferring to wait until her youngest child graduated. “I never wanted anyone to say, ‘Oh, she got that because her mother’s a board member,'” she explains. “I had to fight terribly for my children to ensure they got the right education. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go, especially after COVID and what the kids had been through.”
Over the years, Brill worked on the inclusion plan to include kids with disabilities in the regular classroom. However, her main thrust was getting on the School Board. Fiscally conservative, Brill was concerned about the proper use of funds. She also realized that when her kids went through school, there were no vocational and pre-apprenticeship programs, and knew it was time for a change. “I wanted to see us grow those programs because not every student is geared toward college,” Brill says. “Especially now, it’s the electricians, the plumbers, and the builders making the money. It’s not the people with the mental capital; it’s the ones who work with their hands that are succeeding financially.”
Brill points to two accomplishments during her tenure on the school board, for which she feels a tremendous amount of pride. Since being elected, she has spent significant time with her constituents, including parents and teachers in the district and seniors, which facilitated the first accomplishment. “I spend more than half my month every month in meetings with the people in District 3,” she notes. “At a meeting, one of them asked me why we didn’t have bumper stickers on school buses that say, ‘How’s my driving?’ I brought the idea to the board on behalf of my constituent. One of our elected officials who works on road safety brought it to the legislature, and now school districts across the state can use these bumper stickers. And it all started in Palm Beach County with one senior citizen.”
The second accomplishment speaks to the success of Brill’s philosophy of not making decisions based on partisan politics: the 2016 Sales Tax Referendum. As a sitting member of the Independent Sales Surtax Oversight Committee (ISSOC), which serves as an advisory committee to the School Board, Brill noted that the only way she would support the referendum was if they agreed to end the 10-year sales tax early if they reached their goal of $2.7 billion. She reports, “We’re going to reach our goal at least one year early. I feel very proud that I could get people on the Board and the County Commission to agree with me because we wanted unanimous agreement.”
According to the referendum, sales proceeds can only be used for school repairs, renovations, classroom technology, IT, school buses, and support vehicles. The referendum will end by December 31, 2026. Should the proceeds collected equal or exceed 2.7 billion before September 1 of any year, the sales tax will be terminated at that time. Brill sits in on all the meetings and receives updates on the projects.
She is one of the few board members that make decisions that impact the entire district, not just her own. “I get phone calls from parents and people all over Palm Beach County. I get calls from parents in the north county all the time. Right now, I’m working on possible legislation about service animals. But if it’s not that, it’s about the curriculum.”
However, Brill points out that by statute, Palm Beach County School Board members’ jobs involve only budget and policymaking. “We don’t set the curriculum. Tallahassee does,” she says. “We do approve the books. But for instance, some parents have been surprised by my answer when they ask me if I have seen something, and I respond, ‘No, I haven’t.’ Teachers and principals do not report to us as School Board members. Our direct reports are the Superintendent, the Inspector General, and General Counsel, and that’s it. Anybody underneath reports to the Superintendent. Therefore, we can’t tell the Superintendent, ‘Oh, this principal did such and such or this teacher did such and such, and I want them out.’ We can share stories and inform them. And there is a process for everything. But people think we can make decisions that we cannot make. When I became a School Board member, I thought I was going to change the world.”
While she may not reach her goal of changing the world, Brill’s impressive record in Palm Beach County speaks for itself. And it stems from her perspective on her School Board position. “I have to keep politics out of my decisions. Right now, we are so polarized between the two extremes. I’ve told our administrators when I listen to the parents, they’re speaking from the heart. There are places where we can find agreement and balance, and there are things they say that are true. Parents need a balanced voice on the board; one that isn’t extreme, will listen to their concerns, then go to work and make decisions in people’s favor.”
Other items on Brill’s agenda include increasing partnerships with the business community and transition planning for all students. “Special ed students have transition plans,” she explains. “Eventually, I would like us to be able to sit with all our students to figure out ‘Where do we go from here?’ Many of our guidance counselors are doing that, but we don’t do it district-wide in all schools equally. We must discover what the North Star is for each student and ensure they put things in place to achieve what they want.”
When not advocating for parents and children, Brill works 24/7 in her real estate business, noting, “the way I advocate for children is the way I work with my clients. These days, you have to be a glutton for punishment to deal with this crazy real estate market, but I pace myself and focus on helping people.”
Unsurprisingly, Brill does not get much downtime but enjoys going to the gym, taking nature walks, and traveling with her husband—something she plans to start again after the elections.
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