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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. Hillsborough school district stumbles as it seeks to tout AP gains for black students


    TAMPA — How hard is it for the Hillsborough County School District to report Advanced Placement test results?

    Easy enough for the whole district. And easy enough for Hispanic students.

    But when it came to African American students, district officials tied themselves in knots this week, first broadcasting results that they spun to highlight a two-year improvement, and then walking it back after they realized they were mistaken....

  2. Hillsborough seeks to be open and on message about budget cuts


    The Hillsborough County School District on Friday released a plan that outlines the ways it will communicate changes as it implements some of the Gibson Consulting Group's cost-cutting recommendations....

  3. SAC funding is cut in Hillsborough


    School advisory councils will no longer get money from the Hillsborough County School District, members are now learning.

    SAC's, as they are called, are support groups made up of the school's principal, staff, parents and community members. They have an important role in drafting the school improvement plans that are forwarded to the state. They also vote on how to spend bonus money. ...

  4. Hillsborough teachers in play: How many are there?


    A reader asks: Just how many nonclassroom teachers are being eyed to fill teaching vacancies as cost-cutting continues in the Hillsborough County Schools?

    We're waiting for more details, but some information is available in the district's payroll records.

    We counted well over 1,000 such jobs in a spreadsheet compiled on Sept. 13, and the group has already shrunk since the 2015-16 school year (for example, the peer evaluator position no longer exists.)...

    Tonya Kentish of Middleton High School is one of many reading coaches who attended Superintendent Jeff Eakins' teacher town hall meetings last fall. They spoke of their importance in helping teachers boost student reading skills.
  5. More about those job cuts in the Hillsborough school district


    At our request, the Hillsborough County School District provided us with two emails that were sent out to employees this week that shed more light on the hiring freeze and the plan to fill teacher vacancies with educators who are not now in the classroom.

    The second of the two emails confirns that success coaches -- tasked since late 2014 with working closely with at-risk students in high school and middle school -- will be affected by this move. The success program was considered a key component in the district's plan to even out racial disparities and reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020....

    Sligh Middle School success coach Lanita Lucas stopped to shoot a few baskets during our visit in November. At last count, the Elevate school on the outskirts of Sulphur Springs had two success coaches for 497 students.
  6. Hillsborough School Board | District 7


    Carol Kurdell held the District 7 seat for more than 20 years. She'll step down in November, and two candidates emerged out of a field of eight to compete in the November runoff. Lynn Gray has decades of classroom experience. Cathy James has an equal number of years in accounting, and believes that's what is needed as the school district contends with a financial crisis.

    About the job: School Board members, elected on a nonpartisan basis, are paid $42,000 a year for interacting with constituents and overseeing the eighth-largest school district in the United States, with a yearly budget of $2.8 billion. They meet about four times a month. District 7 is countywide....

    Lynn Gray
  7. Hillsborough School Board | District 5


    Doretha Edgecomb's departure leaves a void in the central Tampa district that includes some of the county's poorest neighborhoods. Both Joe Jordon-Robinson and Tamara Shamburger come to the race with business experience and an understanding of what it is like to raise children in an urban environment. As the school district continues to work its way out of federal discrimination investigation, both candidates promise to be voices for the district's under-served children. ...

  8. Hillsborough schools freeze teacher hiring amid austerity push


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District froze teacher hiring Tuesday, the same day superintendent Jeff Eakins took to YouTube to reassure the public that he is putting students first in all cost-cutting measures.

    "Parents, you trust us to educate your children," Eakins said in the video, appearing next to chief of staff Alberto Vazquez. "That is a decision that you do not take lightly, and it is something that is at the forefront of our minds each and every day."...

    Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a news conference on his first official day as superintendent in 2015. On Oct. 11, 2016, he took to YouTube to communicate with the public about the district's efforts to tame its budget. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
  9. Hillsborough School Board digs into major report on district finances this morning


    School Board members in Hillsborough County will get a full report this morning from a consultant who is trying to help them save money and protect their reserve account.

    The Gibson Consulting Group, according to its report, will tell board members that in some areas, they are using "best practices" in the way they hire teachers and plan for the future....

    Photo illustration. [iStock]
  10. Activists urge continued federal pressure on Hillsborough schools to end racial gaps


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District should not be released from an ongoing federal investigation into alleged racial disparities in teaching and discipline, a civil rights activist says.

    In a letter that takes issue with the school district's view of how black students are doing, retired educator Marilyn Williams says Hillsborough has not proven it is on a path to provide equity. Williams, who filed a discrimination complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, sent her rebuttal to the agency earlier this month....

    Marilyn Williams speaks during a Hillsborough County School Board meeting in 2015. Williams filed a complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging the district discriminates against black students. A follow-up letter to the agency in October 2016 says the district's response to her complaint has been inadequate. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  11. Two east Hillsborough schools are planned to relieve crowded Stowers


    To the surprise of no one, Stowers Elementary School in FishHawk Ranch is still crowded.

    An attendance boundary change, approved as a compromise after parent groups disagreed about which children should move and which should stay, sent 98 students to Bevis and 59 to Pinecrest elementary schools.

    The expectation was that Stowers would continue to operate at 101 to 115 percent of capacity....

    Stowers Elementary School is operating at 111 percent capacity despite this year's boundary change. Two new schools should help
  12. Report: Hillsborough schools could save nearly $50 million a year with changes


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is neglecting its buildings, wasting money by failing to use modern technology for payroll and purchasing, and making inefficient use of its school buses, according to a new report on the district's finances.

    The report says things are so bad in the facilities department that most school buildings are in poor shape and the district will need to spend more than $100 million a year just to keep them from getting worse. ...

    A long-awaited report on Hillsborough County schools by the Gibson Consulting Group, released Oct. 9, 2016, says the district has allowed its buildings to deteriorate at an alarming level. Now the district must spend $111 million a year just to maintain the schools as they are, the report says.
  13. Hillsborough works to solve a problem: rookie teachers in the most demanding schools


    TAMPA — If your child attends Potter Elementary School, the odds are about 1 in 2 that his teacher is in her first year on the job in Hillsborough County.

    If your child goes to Westchase Elementary, those odds shrink to 3 in 100.

    Potter, in East Tampa, is 89 percent black and has had an F every year since 2013.

    Westchase, in the northwest suburbs, is 3 percent black and has had an A since 2000....

    Hillsborough County Chief of Schools Harrison Peters meets on Aug. 10, 2016 with students at Potter Elementary, where nearly half the teachers are in their first year with the district. Officials are working to bring more veteran educators into Potter and other high-needs schools. "The superintendent has tasked us to get in the room and you don't come out until you have an answer," Peters said. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
  14. Here's what a public school air conditioning crisis feels like


    TAMPA — What does a public school air-conditioning crisis look like?

    It's 5-year-old Adrian Kirby at Deer Park Elementary, cheeks flushed, hair matted, beads of sweat forming as he tries to concentrate on sight words.

    It's his fellow kindergarteners raising their hands, because they need to go to the bathroom, because they've been guzzling water all day.

    What does it smell like?...

    Teachers are photographing their classroom thermostats and posting them online. This photo was posted on the Hillsborough County School Board Whistleblower Facebook page, along with others.
  15. On the campaign trail in Hillsborough; James and Shamburger pick up union endorsements


    Cathy James and Tamara Shamburger got the coveted endorsements from the Hillsborough County Teachers Association for the upcoming School Board elections.

    James, an accountant, is running against Lynn Gray, a veteran teacher, for the countywide District 7 seat. The winner will replace Carol Kurdell....

    Tamara Shamburger, a litigation manager, is running against Joe Jordon-Robinson, an engineer, to represent Central Tampa's District 5.