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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.

Phone: (813) 226-3356

  1. Where is April Griffin?


    This is a public invitation to April Griffin, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board, to speak with the Tampa Bay Times' education reporter.

    It is unusual to put in an interview request to an elected public official in this fashion. But conventional methods - such as email and telephone - have been almost entirely unsuccessful in recent weeks.

    The Times and its website have 1.8 million readers. Many of these readers voted for Griffin in the 2014 school board election. Even those who did not are interested in what she has to say as their elected representative. Topics of interest include race and the racial disparities in the schools, budget and the ongoing struggle to maintain school air conditioners, job cuts, standardized tests, religion and its place in the public schools, teachers' concerns and the state of affairs in the district's administrative ranks....

    April Griffin is chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board. The Tampa Bay Times would like to talk to her.
  2. A what-if plan for AC repair in Hillsborough


    The Hillsborough district, under attack from parent and teachers for allowing school air conditioners to fall into disrepair, will soon take a step that could free up some renovation money.

    A resolution on the Oct. 4 meeting agenda would allow the district to spend up to $40 million in anticipation of future bond proceeds to pay the bills.

    "This will allow the District to begin addressing its HVAC needs immediately using existing capital funds which may be recouped later through the issuance of debt or receipt of other legally available revenues," the agenda item says....

    Read the Hillsborough school district's online Newsdesk article, "Cold Hard Facts," for a description of the work performed by their AC repair staff.
  3. Hot schools and crushing debt spell daunting decisions in the Hillsborough schools


    TAMPA — Crushing debt and deferred maintenance are coming home to roost in the Hillsborough County public schools, where faulty air conditioners are leaving some children too hot to learn.

    The problem is a symptom of school system in the grips of a growing financial crisis, cutting costs as it struggles to maintain its reserves and keep up with debt payments on long-ago borrowing to build schools....

    Photo illustration. [istock]
  4. Close-in busing to Hillsborough schools could be cut back next year


    TAMPA — That morning ride your child gets to a Hillsborough County public school?

    It could be gone next year, and the afternoon ride too.

    District officials and School Board members spent Tuesday morning discussing how they can wean thousands of children off "courtesy busing" — the practice of giving rides to students who live within two miles of their schools.

    That practice is costing the district more than $5 million a year at a time when money is tight and the investment community is concerned about the size of the district's reserve fund....

    As a cost-saving measure, Hillsborough County school buses might stop doing courtesy runs for students living within two miles of their schools. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times (2015)]
  5. Hillsborough bus system might offer less "courtesy"


    Details are beginning to emerge about the Hillsborough County School District's efforts to cut transportation costs.

    One idea that will be floated at Tuesday's 9 a.m. workshop concerns a reduction in courtesy rides during the next school year.

    Nothing has been suggested during the current year.

    But, prior to winter break, some students in middle school and high would be notified that, if they live within two miles of a school, they will not get transportation during the 2017-18 school year....

    The morning bus ramp at Lennard High School. Last year, 183 Lennard students got courtesy busing from homes less than two miles from the school. That practice could be reduced next year to save money.
  6. Hillsborough School Board race attracts two experts — one in teaching, the other in finance


    TAMPA — They didn't raise a lot of money — about $31,000 between them.

    But Cathy James and Lynn Gray beat out six opponents, some much better funded, in the August primary for Hillsborough County School Board.

    To go the distance in this countywide race, the winner will need to convince voters, during a fiercely contested presidential election, that she is uniquely qualified to see the schools through daunting challenges in the classroom and at the bank....

    Lynn Gray, right, talks with Aakash Patel, Founder and President of Elevate, Inc. during the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Centre Club in Tampa on Sept. 21, 2016. Gray, a veteran teacher, is a candidate running for the Hillsborough County School Board District 7 seat. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  7. Hillsborough and Idlewild are back on the lecture circuit


    Back again for a second season is EPIC, the Hillsborough school administrator lecture series coordinated in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church.

    Despite backlash last year, and ongoing questions from the American Civil Liberties Union, the district teamed up with the Lutz megachurch for another series of motivational sessions for principals and assistant principals. [EPIC stands for Equipping Principals In the Community.]...

    A series of lectures, conducted in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church, aim to show Hillsborough school administrators how to boost  morale.
  8. Another round of cutbacks in Hillsborough


    The Sept. 9 elimination of about 50 central office clerical jobs in the Hillsborough County School District was followed this week by about 55 more jobs in schools around the district.

    District spokeswoman Tanya Arja confirmed that the new cuts, which happened in the last couple of days, includes a variety of jobs -- secretarial and some in the classroom, such as teaching assistants.

    The secretarial cuts were made to conform to a formula that was suggested by the Gibson Consulting Group, which is advising the district on how to rein in spending and protect its reserves. The old formula, for example, allowed an elementary school with 200 to 499 students to have three secretaries. The new formula allows only two secretaries for a school that size....

    The new round of job cuts in the Hillsborough schools includes school secretaries and classroom aides.
  9. Hillsborough fights the AC fire with Cold Hard Facts


    Battling a barrage of criticism on social media and in the news, the Hillsborough County School District issued its own report Friday on the state of air conditioning repair in the district.

    Titled, "HCPS Air Conditioning the Cold Hard Facts," the Newsdesk article took the reader to Blake High School, where air conditioning specialists Chris McLaughlin and Michael Pratt were adjusting the school's chiller units....

    In an interview with WTSP-Channel 10, Chief Operating Officer Chris Farkas acknowledged that air conditioning complaints have spiked this year, and lamented that there is limited money to replace old units.
  10. Bus drivers will have their say at town hall meetings in Hillsborough


    Transportation town hall meetings are back in Hillsborough.

    Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins will hear directly from drivers in these three planned gatherings:

    Tuesday, September 27, 6 p.m.- 8 p.m. at Middleton High School, located at 4801 North 22ndStreet, Tampa

    Tuesday, October 11, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. at Gaither High School, located at 16200 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa...

  11. Make Van Buren a K-8 school? It's an option, Hillsborough district says


    TAMPA — It's all very hypothetical at this point.

    But included in a long list of future capital projects for the Hillsborough County school district is this item for Van Buren Middle School: $3 million, "K-8 conversion."

    That notation reflects an option that has been discussed, off and on, since early this year: Turn Van Buren, a low performing school on the outskirts of Sulphur Springs with many empty seats, into a better school where students enroll beginning in kindergarten....

    Language arts teacher Megan Lipinczyk, center, helps fourth-grade students at Turner/Bartels in New Tampa, one of four public schools in the Hillsborough district featuring successful kindergarten-through-eighth grade instruction. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times (2015)]

  12. Van Buren K-8? Could happen. But Hillsborough leaders say for now, it's just speculation


    TAMPA - It's all very hypothetical at this point.

    But included in a long list of future capital projects for the Hillsborough County school district is this item for Van Buren Middle School: $3 million, "K-8 conversion."

    That notation reflects an option that has been discussed, off and on, since early this year: Turn Van Buren, an under-enrolled and low performing school on the outskirts of Sulphur Springs, into a better school that kids enter in kindergarten....

    Van Buren students in the school media center
  13. Following the money: That expensive bus service


    Hillsborough County school officials have gotten no shortage of paid advice on how to manage their transportation costs.

    The most recent consultant to tackle the issue, Gibson Consulting Group, laid out a plan that would save $15 million a year.

    Much of it would come from phasing out courtesy busing, the practice of picking up students who live under two miles from their school. The state does not "pay" for this service. More accurately stated, the state does not award money for these trips from a dedicated transportation fund unless the district can prove it would be unsafe for that child to walk. What the district considers unsafe and what the state considers unsafe are two different things. And, as district officials will acknowledge, there are some courtesy stops that they approved years ago, when a particular location really was unsafe, and then never eliminated even though conditions changed....

  14. More about those Hillsborough school air conditioners


    As teachers complained last week about air conditioning problems at the Hillsborough County schools, we asked a question that would be obvious to pretty much anyone who lives in Florida:

    What about mold?

    We were told, near week's end, that the district does NOT turn the air conditioners off on the weekend to save money, as some suspect.

    Spokeswoman Tanya Arja told us more on Monday:...

  15. We love social media


    We really do. That's why, in addition to our Gradebook blog, we just rolled out a Facebook page that we invite you to join, and contribute to. Let's keep those spirited conversations going (and those story tips rolling in.)...