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. Hefty campaign accounts for Hillsborough School Board races seen as coincidence, not a trend


    TAMPA — It was a big deal in 2006 when Hillsborough County school administrator Ken Allen sank $65,000 into an unsuccessful bid to sit on the School Board.

    This year, with the primary season not even over, four School Board candidates are at or past that level, with two fast approaching the six-figure mark.

    Michelle Popp Shimberg ($97,000), Dipa Shah ($95,000), Melissa Snively ($67,000) and Paula Meckley ($65,000), all first-time candidates for public office, are generating more financial support than these races have seen in at least a decade....

  2. Local schools among 116 that rose two grades or more


    TAMPA — Seeing last year's back-to-school news conference at Graham Elementary School, which was celebrated by superintendent MaryEllen Elia for improving two letter grades, Russell Wallace had an idea.

    He was the new principal at Bailey Elementary, a D school in Dover. Looking ahead optimistically, he had the staff reconfigure the media center to simulate the televised news conference Elia would hold this year....

  3. English teacher proves ESOL training; five more face firing


    TAMPA — The number of Hillsborough County public school teachers up for suspension because of a missing teaching credential is down to five.

    Mitchell Rebenstorf of Wharton High School was put on notice that he had not obtained his endorsement in English for Speakers of Other Languages, a requirement for many teachers with students whose first language was not English.

    His name appeared on a Hillsborough County School Board agenda and in Thursday's Tampa Bay Times....

  4. Lack of training cited as veteran teachers face firing


    TAMPA — William Leonard II was a finalist for Hillsborough County diversity educator of the year in 2013.

    This year he is among six veteran teachers who could lose their jobs because they lack the proper teaching credentials to serve students with limited English skills.

    The six are on a list to be suspended without pay, pending termination. The Hillsborough County School Board will vote on these actions at its next meeting Tuesday....

  5. Teams will target at-risk students in Hillsborough


    Hillsborough County school officials are re-thinking the relationship between counselors and students who are at risk of failing or dropping out.

    Rather than taking a passive approach, the district this year will establish teams of social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors.

    Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is calling these "success programs" that will establish collective ownership of that segment of the student population who sometimes fall through the cracks....

  6. Bus behavior in Hillsborough will be addressed on several fronts


    Student behavior -- and lack of a cohesive way to deal with it -- was one of the biggest problems cited by bus drivers in the public meetings.

    Addressing the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Wednesday, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she is addressing that problem on several fronts.

    She discussed the issue at a principals' meeting this week.

    She's fine-tuning bus driver training, so drivers know the correct way to report student misbehavior on the bus. They'll also get more training in behavior management....

  7. Griffin: More town hall meetings to come


    Expect more town hall meetings on Hillsborough County school district issues, board member April Griffin said Wednesday.

    Addressing the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Griffin, who is seeking re-election to her countyside seat, said, "I'm going to have follow-up meetings on transportation to see how things are going."

    The district is taking multiple steps to correct long-standing problems in that department, including old buses and low morale among the drivers. "I think the plan we have, if we follow it ... there are pieces of it that are very good," Griffin said. "But we have to stay engaged."

    The meetings might cover other topics as well, she said.

    More than 100 school district employees took part in a series of meetings in the spring that were organized by Griffin and other members of the elected board. As those gatherings were taking place, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia commissioned dozens of focus group meetings and later met personally with groups of employees before she developed the district's action plan....

    Employees turned out in April to the Beulah Baptist Church in Tampa to discuss problems with the Hillsborough school district's transportation department
  8. Questions and answers about Florida Standards


    Everyone, it seems, is asking questions about Florida Standards, the state's adaptation of Common Core.

    To answer them, and to counter some of the election-season hype, Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has hosted a series of parent meetings and will continue to do so throughout the summer.

    The next one will take place July 16 at 7 p.m. at the South Shore campus of Hillsborough Community College in Ruskin, second floor community conference room.

    After that the schedule, which is fairly fluid, looks like this:

    Wednesday, July 23, at 6 p.m.
    ROSSAC auditorium
    901 E. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa

    Wednesday, July 30, at 7 p.m.
    St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church
    108 S. Warnell St., Plant City

    Wednesday, August 27, at 7 p.m.
    College Hill Church of God in Christ
    6414 N. 30th St., Tampa...

    Hillsborough Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia
  9. Feds will investigate allegation that Hillsborough district shortchanges black students


    TAMPA — The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has asked the Hillsborough County school district 42 questions based on an allegation that it is shortchanging minority students.

    The complaint, filed by retired educator Marilyn Williams, is not unlike others that are being filed around the country, leading to what amounts to a nationwide review, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia....

  10. Lennard High, three other schools get new principals


    Lennard High School's next principal is Mary Freitas, who was promoted from her last position as assistant principal at Lennard.

    Freitas, 43, has worked for the Hillsborough County school district since 2000, when she spent five years as a teacher at Plant High.

    From there she worked as an assistant principal at Sickles, Steinbrenner and Lennard.

    The school board on Tuesday approved these principal appointments as well:...

    Cristina Fernandez is the new principal of Mendenhall Elementary School
  11. Snively and Shimberg get Hillsborough union endorsements


    Teachers union endorsements are important in school board races. They represent not only a vote of confidence from the teaching ranks, but they also lead to contributions from numerous labor unions.

    In Hillsborough, the nod from the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association goes to two candidates who are already the fundraising leaders in their districts: Melissa Snively, in east Hillsborough's District 4; and Michelle Shimberg in District 2, which covers south Tampa and part of the southeast county....

    Melissa Snively is running in District 4, where Stacy White is stepping down after one term.
  12. Fourteen compete for three Hillsborough School Board seats


    TAMPA — Fourteen people are seeking three seats on the Hillsborough County School Board, a body that has had heated discussions and deep divisions in recent years.

    Ranging in age from 19 to 67, the diverse group of candidates includes one incumbent, three who have run for the board before and several new names.

    Members Candy Olson and Stacy White are stepping down in November, leaving their seats open. Each has three contenders....

  13. Sex, guns and accountability: Hillsborough candidates stump


    In their first campaign appearances since qualifying closed, 10 candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board fielded questions at Friday's Tiger Bag Club meeting about sex education and guns on campus, accountability and long-serving Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

    There were few surprises.

    Michael Weston, a second-time candidate who lost his teaching job last year, said he disapproves of Elia's leadership. So did incumbent April Griffin, who has clashed with Elia repeatedly over the past year.

    Most of the other candidates were more measured in their remarks about Elia, saying they have had limited direct experience with her, and appreciate points of excellence in the district.

    They also qualified their remarks about whether guns belong on campus (most said they should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officers only), sex education (most said parents should be allowed to opt out on behalf of their kids) and the Florida Standards (there were plenty of anti-Common Core remarks, and a lot of complaints about high-stakes testing, but also a consensus that standards need to be high.)

    Candidates Terry Kemple, Dee Prether, Lee Sierra and Stacy Hahn did not participate.

    The youngest candidate, Asher Edelson, restated his pledge to get healthier food in the schools. He also called for better accountability, as did others in the group, including a request that School Board workshops be recorded and televised.

    Candidates Dipa Shah, Alison Fernandez, Michelle Shimberg, Paula Meckley and Melissa Snively all drew on the experiences they have had putting multiple children through the schools. Shah, in particular, praised the magnet schools. Sally Harris, a second-time candidate, said she's frustrated when she tries to get budget information and wants the system to be more transparent. And, responding to a question about private school vouchers, she said that as a foster parent, she appreciates the need for options.

    Randy Toler, meanwhile, continued to speak about the need for oversight in exceptional student education, telling the audience twice that he has a six-year-old son with autism....

    Dipa Shah
  14. Who wants to be on the Hillsborough school board?


    Qualifying deadline is at noon Friday for three seats on the Hillsborough County School Board.

    Also at noon on Friday, 12 of the candidates (at last count) will be speaking at the Tiger Bay Club.

    We will livetweet their first words of the official campaign season.

  15. Hillsborough teacher faces felony charge involving car crash


    TAMPA — A middle school science teacher faces criminal charges related to a car crash in May.

    Cassandra Williams, 36, was arrested Thursday and released on $30,000 bail. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office charged her with leaving the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor; and tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony.

    Williams joined the Hillsborough County school district in 2007 and teaches science at Randall Middle School. She did not return a call for comment on Thursday. Her attorney, Ty Trainer, said Williams hired him in early June after a crash in which she hit a parked car. He said he believes the tampering charge stems from her attempt to sell the car she was driving, and that the other person involved is someone she knew....