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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. Another Toler runs for Hillsborough School Board


    The newest candidate for Hillsborough County School Board has a last name name that might ring familiar: Alicia Toler is the wife of Randy Toler, a second-time candidate for the board.

    Randy Toler, who finished sixth in an eight-way race in 2014 against incumbent April Griffin, is now running for the at-large seat held by Carol Kurdell. The election is in 2016.

    Alicia Toler, who filed this week, is running in District 3 for a seat held by Cindy Stuart, who is running for her second four-year term....

    Randy Toler and Alicia Toler, far right, appeared in front of the school administration building during his last run for school board. With them are children Kellie, Kyle and Rainer
  2. Parent University is back in Hillsborough


    Parent University is back in Hillsborough County.

    Registration is ongoing for the first session, Sept. 12 at Gaither High School in northern Hillsborough.

    The free seminars cover a choice of topics, from exceptional student education to high school graduation requirements. Some sessions are given in Spanish as well....

    Larry Plank tells parents about the Hillsborough County school district's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs during a past Parent University session.
  3. Hillsborough board will get student voices


    After a long and somewhat circular conversation, the Hillsborough County School Board agreed Tuesday to find a way to get student input at their meetings.

    The details have yet to be worked out, and Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he'll present a plan at the board's Sept. 29 business meeting. That's the same meeting in which Eakins has promised a detailed report on the district's operational deficit, and how to stabilize the reserve fund....

    The yearly student forum at the Hillsborough County School Board generally attracts high-achieving high school students.
  4. Financial disclosure policy faces a split vote in Hillsborough


    NOTE: This post is a corrected version of Tuesday's report.

    The mostly congenial Hillsborough County School Board took a trip Tuesday into territory that divided it sharply in years past: April Griffin's idea to require more financial disclosures from managers.

    Griffin championed that idea when she was chairwoman. It was voted on twice before it passed 3-2 on Sept. 10, 2013. (Careful Gradebook readers might have noticed an earlier version of this post described a 3-3 vote earlier in the year, which did not carry the motion). Jim Porter, the board's attorney, said the board would first have to approve a policy and that's what the members discussed on Tuesday....

  5. Two policies are good to go in Hillsborough


    After a discussion that touched on internet trolls and unscrupulous coaches, the Hillsborough County School Board gave its unofficial approval to policies on social media and athletic recruitment.

    Tuesday morning's workshop was just a discussion, and a vote won't happen until after a public hearing. More policies will be discussed in the afternoon, along with an idea to add nonvoting students to the school board....

  6. Hillsborough board to tackle policies on Tuesday


    With the kids back in school and Erika a memory, the Hillsborough County School Board will spend much of Tuesday at policy workshops.

    The 9 a.m. sesion will cover a variety of topics including how to allow teachers to use social media without violating student confidentiality, the right way to name a new school or gymnasium, and the recurring issue of athletic transfers. Hillsborough policy considers a student who moves after the start of high school to be a transfer student. That student is expected to wait a year before playing a team sport, but he or she can get an exception after demonstrating to a committee that the transfer was for a good reason. The approved list of reasons includes marriage, a parent's military deployment, a district-approved transfer for school choice or to comply with an individual educational plan (IEP), or a "full and complete move" by the student's family. The idea is to prevent coaches from recruiting the strongest players from other schools, and the committee's decision is final, according to the policy under consideration. ...

  7. Just a shirt?


    You might read today's story about the Idlewild Baptist Church spirit shirt giveaway and say, it's just a shirt.

    But sometimes it isn't.

    A reader shared this green flyer that came home in a child's bookbag Thursday. At the family's request, we deleted the school name....

    Idlewild Baptist Church donated these spirit shirts at 21 schools. Teachers had the option of accepting and wearing them.
  8. Teacher shirts in Hillsborough strike a nerve when they advertise a church


    TAMPA — More than 2,000 Hillsborough County public school teachers received T-shirts this week that advertise a megachurch with conservative values, fueling a backlash from some who said the gesture was inappropriate.

    The back of the shirts say "Staff" in large letters, and underneath are the words, "In Partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church."

    "We partner with a lot of faith-based organizations, not just this one," said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. "They care about our schools and our students, so we're proud of the partnership."...

    The T-shirts represent the latest in a series of contributions from Idlewild.
  9. Music, pirates and big goals as Hillsborough students return to school


    TAMPA — They tumbled out of big yellow buses into buildings with high-buffed floors. Some were met with music. For others, the trip was a run through PTA tables and T-shirt sales.

    Just less than 200,000 children in Hillsborough County returned to school on Tuesday.

    "Have a great first day," superintendent Jeff Eakins said as he greeted students at his first stop, Sligh Middle School. He told a medical studies student who asked about her schedule: "I'll find someone who can help you."...

    Cassandra Booth and daughter Alyssandra Mercedes, who is in kindergarten, wait for classes to begin Tuesday at Bellamy Elementary in Tampa. Teachers and staffers dressed as pirates to get everyone more engaged, using the book Teach Like a Pirate as a guide for the new year. See how other county schools said welcome back. Story, 10B
  10. Hillsborough school officials held back on publicly discussing dwindling reserve fund


    TAMPA — During a mid-July retreat at a Holiday Inn in Brooksville, the news started trickling out to Hillsborough County School Board members. The school district's reserve fund was shrinking fast.

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins was waiting to hear from the district's bonding agencies, who would later tell him a $200 million depletion over four years led to negative reports to investors....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins holds a news conference Monday at Leto High. Eakins said that before school officials publicly discussed dwindling reserves, he want to make sure his message was appropriate, and that administrators throughout the district had the facts they needed to react appropriately. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times] 
  11. Tampa magnet schools will take 99 students from Brandon's McLane


    TAMPA — Nearly 100 students who were zoned to attend Brandon's McLane Middle School have been placed into east Tampa magnet schools instead, part of an effort to reduce the extensive busing that led to longstanding problems at McLane.

    A Tampa Bay Times report in April showed McLane had some of the worst academic and discipline problems in the district. The school had the highest expulsion rates in the county, both for the 2013-14 year and overall across the past decade. In addition, black students there performed well below their peers at other schools, and McLane had more teachers rated unsatisfactory than any other school in the state....

    A Tampa Bay Times report in April showed McLane Middle School had some of the worst academic and discipline problems in the district.  [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
  12. Eakins on the day before Hillsborough schools start: 'It's way more than just academics'


    TAMPA — Jeff Eakins had good reasons for choosing Leto High School for Monday's back-to-school news conference — an annual tradition for the Hillsborough County district but his first ever as superintendent.

    The school has a child development center, Little Leto. It has an award winning culinary arts program and an adult automotive school on campus.

    And it's part of a group of schools that have come together for a community Parent Teacher Association....

    Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins holds a news conference Monday at Leto High School.
  13. Some Hillsborough schools have room to spare, but district keeps building


    TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County School District prepares to spend $54 million to build new schools and classroom wings, dozens of existing schools are operating well below capacity.

    The district's five-year capital improvement plan shows 25 schools, not including alternative schools or career centers, that are one-third to half empty.

    Some have received D and F grades from the state — including Sligh and Van Buren middle schools, and Lockhart and Riverhills elementary schools....

  14. Following the Money in Hillsborough: Teachers' leader speaks out


    As we wait for Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins' analysis of teacher pay, and how changes in the system might have affected the district's fund balance, Gradebook spoke with Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, to get her perspective.

    "I would keep in mind a couple things," she said. "You have a number of unfunded mandates coming from Tallahassee."

    These include testing requirements that do not come with adequate funding to buy the computers students need to take the tests, she said. Requiring some schools to stay open an hour longer also costs districts money.

    "That takes energy," she said. "That takes staff. That takes transportation. Again, they do it, they mandate it, they put no money toward it. These are just two good examples where the district had to respond and provide services and meet the law. Those are things that hit the budget and those can be things that cause you to dip into your reserves."

    Baxter-Jenkins pointed out that in 2011, when the fund had $361 million, part of that money came from federal stimulus funds to get the nation through the recession. "So it's not a valid balance to compare against."

    Remember, she said, that "the entire purpose of what we've done is to value teachers and to pay them a better salary. I want to note for the record, look at the salary scale. There is no teacher who is making a fortune. I don't think it's out of line and, in fact, Florida teachers are still paid pretty poorly compared to teachers in other places. Given what we have to work with in a state that doesn't adequately fund education, I am very proud of the scale we bargained, which values our new teachers, as well as our veteran teachers."

    As Eakins and his staff move forward, she urged them to consider other expenditures that are driving up spending. Managerial appointments and positions deserve a hard look. They might be well intended, she said, but they also cost money.

    "Budget crises are always a convenient thing while you're in the context of [contract] negotiation," she said.

    "There's a lot of things we can look at in a $3 billion budget where teachers do not have to be scapegoated in any way. Any way in which you want to make them the cause of the problem is not good for our schools and is not good for our district.

    "Look anywhere, read the New York Times recently. We're facing a nationwide teacher shortage. So making teachers or their salary the problem is not the way to go."...

    Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins is executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
  15. Hillsborough will look for new ways to evaluate superintendent


    It was one of the issues surrounding MaryEllen Elia's firing: How to evaluate the superintendent of Hillsborough schools.

    Elia was graded with a point formula that, critics said, made it difficult for her to get a less-than-satisfactory rating. Compounding that issue, her three-year contract rolled over annually for an additional year.

    Now, School Board members say, it's time for a change. They will meet 9 a.m. Tuesday in a workshop to talk about a new way to evaluate their superintendents, a position now held by Jeff Eakins....