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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. Charter Schools USA wants to run four new Hillsborough schools


    TAMPA — Charter Schools USA is back, and this time Hillsborough County officials are giving it a warmer welcome.

    Subject to School Board approval on Tuesday, the Fort Lauderdale company will manage four new schools projected to serve as many as 4,650 students. That's in addition to 3,200 who now attend the Henderson Hammock, Winthrop and Woodmont schools, also managed by Charter Schools USA....

  2. School leaders urge Tampa barbers to do more than cut hair


    TAMPA — In his 28 years as a barber, Tony Williams cut the hair of men who went to jail and men who built successful businesses.

    Sometimes, they did both, and when things turned out well, they came back and thanked him.

    Today, Williams wants to start a reading ministry in his east Tampa barber shop. "So many young men in our community can't read," he told Lewis Brinson, chief of diversity for the Hills­borough County school district, on Monday....

    Tony Williams, 52, cuts the hair of Yadiel Hernandez, 7, Monday at Tony’s Barbershop. Williams hopes to help young men read.
  3. Suspension numbers are down in Hillsborough


    Early in Tuesday's marathon Hillsborough County School Board meeting, Superintendent Jeff Eakins updated the board on the district's efforts to cut down on lost instructional time due to student suspensions. That problem is most pronounced for black students, and district leaders hope a change in discipline policies will reduce and eventually eliminate that gap.

    Among other things, principals must get permission from their area superintendents to suspend a student for more than five days. In addition to keeping kids in school, the district is trying to satisfy the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which is investigation allegations of racial disparities in both education and discipline....

  4. Hillsborough transportation system gets an outside look - or two


    The Hillsborough district's transportation department is under review, Chief Facilities Officer Chris Farkas told the School Board Tuesday.

    That process began even before the accident on Sept. 17, when a bus from Bryant Elementary School went into a retention pond with 27 children aboard. The children all survived with only some minor injuries, but the incident attracted public attention to the long over-stressed bus system....

    Jim Beekman -- with the white hair -- was in the audience Tuesday. His boss, Chris Farkas, said he has full confidence in Beekman and the ongoing examination of driver issues was his idea.
  5. New principals in Hillsborough


    The Hillsborough County School Board approved these principals appointments Tuesday:

    * Melissa Babanats, 39, Town 'N Country Elementary School. Babanats joined the district in 2000 as a guidance counselor at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School. She was a counselor at Davis Elementary and, most recently, that school's assistant principal.

    * Derrick Gaines, 52, Bowers-Whitley Career Center. Gaines, an employee since 1989, taught at King, Sickles and Middleton high schools. He was an assistant principal at Sickles, Tampa Bay Technical High School and Middleton. He is now leaving the principal's job at Van Buren Middle School....

    Derrick Gaines is moving from Van Buren Middle School, where he was principal, to Bowers-Whitley Career Center, where he will replace retiring principal Anthony Colucci.
  6. Hillsborough School Board hires auditor and buys 200 new buses


    TAMPA — Seeking to cure the Hillsborough County school district's budget problems and — in some cases — insulate superintendent Jeff Eakins from blame, the School Board voted Tuesday to hire an outside auditor.

    Eakins wants to hire Gibson Consulting Group of Texas to perform an "efficiency review and audit." It is not yet clear how much the contract will cost, but the hope is that it will pay for itself with savings that result....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins listens to a speaker during a School Board meeting earlier this year. On Tuesday, Eakins reported progress in the district’s efforts to suspend fewer students. Overall there was a 43 percent decrease in days of suspension between the first four weeks of the last school year and the same period this year. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
  7. Following the money in Hillsborough: All those contracts


    Gradebook would be remiss, it was pointed out to us, if we highlighted the escalating cost of teacher pay and the related Gates program, without also reporting on the tens of millions approved at every Hillsborough County School Board meeting for contracts.

    It's a long list this week, which you can view here,  and which shows the many ways the school district spends money on a regular basis....

  8. Following the money in Hillsborough: About those peer evaluators


    With continued uncertainty over the Hillsborough schools budget and the Gates program, peer mentors and evaluators are in the hot seat.

    The district's last payroll showed 265 evaluators and mentors who are paid a combined $14 million in salary alone. Those numbers get much higher when you include insurance benefits, travel (they drive all over the county) and a bureaucracy built around them that is almost like a separate school....

    Christie Gold, shown in a 2012 training session, doesn't want Hillsborough students and teachers to lose out on the benefits of Empowering Effective Teachers. Costing tens of millions, it could be on the chopping block.
  9. Hillsborough schools superintendent seeks to hire auditor to control spending


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools superintendent Jeff Eakins wants to hire a Texas consulting firm to perform an efficiency audit as the district seeks to stop runaway spending and protect its reserves.

    "We've done this in the past in the district," Eakins told the School Board during a workshop Tuesday on the budget. "We've contracted with organizations. It's time we do that."

    Few details were available Wednesday, including the cost....

  10. Charter schools see the sharpest growth in Hillsborough County


    TAMPA — Business is booming in Hillsborough County public schools — especially in charter schools, which grew by nearly 10 percent this year, compared with 2.3 percent growth districtwide, according to enrollment numbers released this week.

    Charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but managed independently, have been growing across the state and the nation for more than a decade. In Hillsborough, they serve 8 percent of public school students....

  11. Hillsborough school officials reveal $142 million 'hole' in budget


    TAMPA — In a year when the Hillsborough County school district had a net loss of 79 teachers, it managed to spend $77 million more than in the previous year on salaries.

    Half went to teachers. Another $10 million went to administrators, who grew in number by 55. Adding benefits, the total came to $101 million.

    The expenses were part of a pattern of overspending that, if not corrected in this fiscal year, would further erode the district's reserves. Superintendent Jeff Eakins revealed a $142 million financial "hole" at a School Board workshop Tuesday — a problem that was nowhere to be found in the 2015-16 budget the board approved on Sept. 8....

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins said much added spending could have been avoided.
  12. Gates partnership leaves Hillsborough schools shouldering millions more than expected



    A seven-year effort to put better teachers in Hillsborough County schools is costing the system millions of dollars more than officials projected. And the district's partner in the project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is spending $20 million less than expected. The numbers, found in recent reports, differ significantly from what was commonly understood about the high-profile partnership, known as Empowering Effective Teachers. The district was to raise $102 million for its part, much of it by aggressively pursuing grants from local corporations and other entities. Gates was to kick in $100 million, for a total of $202 million. But as the project stands in its final year, the district's contribution will total $124 million in money and labor, while the Gates organization is paying only $80 million, the reports state. What's more, the district has put the total cost of the program, so far, at $271 million, which includes costs related to the effort. The numbers likely will be part of a detailed discussion that begins today on how to address the district's dwindling reserves and the resulting budget crisis that has bond-rating companies raising questions about school system finances....

    Microsoft founder Bill Gates observes Jefferson High School students when Gates and his wife Melinda visited as part of their foundation’s education reform effort. The foundation has spent $20 million less than expected.
  13. Young school bus safety patrol heroes after Odessa crash: 'I thought it was like a nightmare'


    TAMPA — It was dark on the bus when it went into the water.

    A fourth-grader was too panicked to move.

    A second-grader jumped on safety patrol Ella Brunelle's back.

    "I thought it was like a nightmare," said Ella, a fifth-grader at Bryant Elementary School just outside Westchase in northwest Hillsborough County. "We tried to get everyone to walk toward the front, but they were all screaming."...

    Bryant Elementary’s safety patrol sponsor Chan Bliss, left, hon?ors rescuers Nicholas Sierra, Ella Brunelle and Stephanie Swartz. Fellow rescuer Kate Turlington wasn’t present.
  14. Numbers show Hillsborough schools ramped up spending even as revenue stayed flat


    TAMPA — Over the past five years, when its revenues were nearly flat, the Hillsborough County public school system spent like there was no tomorrow.

    Hundreds of millions went to increase salaries. Spending in the district's central offices grew dramatically. Money paid for contracts — such as the experts who fly in for training seminars — surged by 70 percent.

    All of this is written in monthly financial reports that are among the hundreds of pages included in School Board agendas....