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Marlene Sokol, Times Staff Writer

Marlene Sokol

Marlene Sokol has worked at the Times as a reporter, editor and columnist since 1988. After launching North of Tampa in 1996, she served first as its editor and later as a general assignment reporter specializing in the suburbs. She now covers education in Hillsborough County. Email her at

Phone: (813) 226-3356

  1. In the running -- maybe -- for Hillsborough School Board


    Randy Toler might have competition as he goes after the countywide Hillsborough County School Board seat now held by Carol Kurdell. Or he might not.

    Stanley Gray, a 59-year-old retiree, filed his papers this week to run.

    When contacted by Gradebook, he said, "I'm considering running."

    He filed, he said, because he thought he was up against a deadline to do so. But it turns out that deadline is not until almost a year from now, in June 2016....

  2. Hillsborough schools chief promises focus on graduation rates, individual attention


    TAMPA — Schoolchildren will feel cared for from the moment they board the bus.

    Employees will be fulfilled in their jobs. Businesses will get workers who are clear-headed, well-mannered and prepared to compete in a global economy.

    Jeff Eakins' plans for the Hills­borough County school system sound ambitious, especially the part where high school graduations will skyrocket in three years....

    New Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins speaks during a news conference on his first official day as superintendent Wednesday. Behind him are School Board members, from left, April Griffin, Sally Harris, Doretha Edgecomb and Cindy Stuart.
  3. Eakins speaks at 11 a.m.


    Jeff Eakins is officially superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools today, and he will speak at a news conference at 11 a.m.

    We will live tweet the event, which can also be seen here.

    Eakins, who became acting superintendent on March 6, has spent the last several months restructuring his cabinet and setting priorities that include a more student-centered culture and a higher graduation rate....

  4. Calendar adjustment in Hillsborough is on hold


    Can students in Hillsborough County please get Presidents Day off? Would the district consider shrinking from 181 to 180 days, to save money? How much would they save?

    Board member Melissa Snively asked these questions as the board was about to adopt its 2016-17 calendar, one that would start the school year earlier and get semester exams out of the way in December, before the holiday break....

  5. Hillsborough School Board makes plans — again — to discuss student rights


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board members will get another chance on July 21 to discuss minority student discipline, acting superintendent Jeff Eakins said at Tuesday's board meeting.

    And this time, they'll get feedback to a task force's idea for a student bill of rights.

    A workshop June 16 resulted in little progress in the two-year effort to reduce disparities in discipline between minority and white students. A task force wants to add a bill of rights to the student handbook. More significantly, task force leaders say, they want students to sign a disclosure form, attesting that they know their rights, before they face discipline such as suspensions and expulsions....

  6. In scaled-back survey, Hillsborough students cite lack of respect from peers


    TAMPA — Students in the Hills- borough County School District — those surveyed, at least — are happy with their teachers.

    But they are not so happy about the way kids treat each other, and do not have much meaningful contact with their principals.

    Districtwide results from the annual climate survey, which were shared with the School Board last week, represent a scaled-down version of past surveys, which attempted to interview all of Hillsborough's 206,000 students....

  7. School bus company accuses Hillsborough of being "fast and loose" with public records


    Lawyers for the local Blue Bird school bus leader wanted to depose Jim Beekman, transportation director for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, in their public records lawsuit. At a hearing Friday. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Bernard Silver said they didn't have a strong enough case. But that didn't stop the lawyers from going at it for more than an hour.


    Lawyer Ed Turanchik and Florida Transportation Systems president Chris Rustman were at the Hillsborough School Board meeting on June 9, protesting the district's decision to buy from a competitor.
  8. Hillsborough set to fire dozens of teachers, mostly from low-income schools


    TAMPA — As many as 32 Hillsborough County public school teachers, most working at schools that serve lower-income children, are set to be fired Tuesday for failing to pass a required state exam.

    The number might shrink before Tuesday's School Board meeting, as some teachers might be able to show they've passed the exam in recent days, said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. Others might resign so they won't be fired....

  9. It's not you: The Hillsborough race workshop was confusing


    People at Tuesday's public Hillsborough County School Board workshop on student discipline might have come away confused. The project has been going on more than two years, and the workshop had already been postponed for a teacher termination hearing. But, rather than reaching closure, the board walked away with a lot of unanswered questions and a loose timeline for action.

    Here's a recap on the effort so far:...

    In November of 2013, the Hillsborough County School Board held the second of two workshops on race, and this one was well attended. The district continues to discuss solutions to ease disparities in discipline.
  10. Blue Bird dealer files another complaint concerning Hillsborough bus purchase


    A week before a scheduled vote to buy nearly $11 million in school buses, a Tampa dealer has filed a second complaint against the Hillsborough County Public Schools.

    Florida Transportation Systems, in a complaint filed with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings, alleges the district chose competitor Thomas Built buses based on flawed data, and that the decision will waste taxpayers' money. Florida Transportation is the dealer for Blue Bird buses....

  11. Hillsborough considers help for over-taxed school guidance counselors


    TAMPA — Guidance counselors — sometimes too busy to provide either guidance or counseling — might see their jobs change and their numbers grow in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

    Speaking at a School Board workshop Tuesday on student discipline, acting superintendent Jeff Eakins acknowledged that state testing eats up much of the counselors' time in the spring, when they are most needed to help students sort out their problems or prepare for graduation....

  12. With data suggesting racial bias, the Hillsborough School Board will focus on student discipline


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County's middle schools come in all shapes and sizes. Some specialize in science or the arts. There's one for just boys and one for girls.

    But all 45 had this in common, according to the 2013-14 data the district gave to the federal government: Black students were more likely to be suspended or referred for expulsion than white students.

    The disparity, while universal, was truer in some schools than others. Take Williams Middle Magnet School, an international baccalaureate magnet in East Tampa. The student body that year was 29 percent black, but the population of students disciplined was 74 percent black. ...

  13. Hillsborough's black students are suspended more often than their classmates. But how much more?


    To understand what the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is looking at in Hillsborough County, Gradebook examined some of the data the agency asked for last year.

    The request yielded more than a dozen cartons, thick with reports. What follows is just a sample.

    For three years, from 2010-2011 through 2013-2014, the district was asked for a school-by-school breakdown of suspension and expulsion cases, by race....

  14. Competitor contests Hillsborough school bus choice


    Sour grapes or a public records lapse?

    Having lost out on a school bus sale of nearly $11 million, the local Blue Bird dealer has filed a complaint against the Hillsborough County Public Schools, alleging the district was not cooperative enough when asked for records relating to how they choose their new buses.

    The dispute is reminiscent of the larger transportation controversy that began in 2013 -- and in the fallout, this year's purchase of 100 buses will be delayed by two weeks. It could have been longer. But, although School Board member Cindy Stuart raised more issues about new bus repairs during Tuesday's board meeting, she insisted the purchase must come back to the board June 23 because "it is imperative that we put new buses on the street."...

  15. The summer of Eakins


    Incoming superintendent Jeff Eakins has his work cut out this summer, helping people in Hillsborough County understand his vision, and that of the School Board, for the nation's eighth largest school district.

    Key themes emerge as he explains the rationale behind his reorganization: Shifting and renaming positions so people know what they are doing and the public knows where to go for help; tackling vexing issues such as the achievement gap and the school to prison pipeline in a way that could break new ground nationwide; and - if all that were not enough - infusing a workforce of 30,000 with a spirit of camaraderie, humility and mutual respect. (Skip to the end to see how passionate he becomes on the issue of respect)....

    Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins unveiled the first phase of his reorganization and is now working to explain the plan and his vision for the school district