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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. Between consulting jobs and charters, couple's role in Hillsborough schools expands


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District has paid more than $35,000 to a consulting firm whose owner also is on track to oversee seven charter schools.

    While the two developments are unrelated, they illustrate new directions the district has quietly taken under superintendent Jeff Eakins' leadership — including a thaw in what once was an icy relationship with for-profit charter school operators....

    Mel, left, and Rod Jurado of Temple Terrace own the Profitable Group.
  2. As Hillsborough's first 'priority' school, Sligh Middle hopes to be a model


    TAMPA — Things were so tense the night the Hillsborough County School Board named Shellie Blackwood- Green as Sligh Middle School's new principal, her 9-year-old son asked if the teachers even liked her.

    It made no difference.

    "I had already made the decision that, if not me, then who?" said Blackwood-Green, 46. "To me, this is a calling and a purpose."

    Blackwood-Green, who cut her teaching teeth in the South Bronx, is the fourth principal in five years at the F-rated school in Sulphur Springs. Last year, police showed up at Sligh 27 times. And with room for more than 1,100 students, enrollment stands at under 500....

    Cortez Young a math teacher greets Chiara Wells, left, and  Jada Fipps, center, both 7th graders at Sligh Middle School in Tampa on Nov. 5. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. More about the Idlewild controversy


    Our coverage of Idlewild Baptist Church's work in the Hillsborough County schools struck a nerve among some district employees who want more details. In particular, they want to know more about Friday's letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council....

    The Hillsborough school district says that many churches, not just Idlewild Baptist Church, support the schools. Here are volunteers from Relevant Church washing teachers' cars at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in 2013.
  4. Jewish group expresses concern over Hillsborough schools' partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church


    TAMPA — The relationship between Idlewild Baptist Church and the Hillsborough County School District crosses church-state boundaries and makes some employees uncomfortable, a Jewish organization said Friday in a letter to superintendent Jeff Eakins.

    The Jewish Community Relations Council, an arm of the Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation, offered to meet with district officials to determine guidelines that will allow the church to help schools and students without the appearance of proselytizing....

    Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to  Hillsborough County Schools principals and assistant principals at a training session in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
  5. Hillsborough union says the district is pitting teachers against aides in salary talks


    TAMPA — With the winter holidays approaching, the Hills­borough County school district and teachers union are no closer to an agreement over pay than when negotiations began in the summer.

    Talks broke down again this week with angry words from the union, which has been trying to get more money for lower-paid members, including secretaries and classroom aides.

    "On the whole they went backward, but did it in a way to pit our members against each other," union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins told members in a Facebook message....

  6. Egdecomb: I will continue to be a voice for all children


    Addressing the Tampa Bay Times for the first time since she was denied the Hillsborough County School Board chairmanship on Tuesday, Doretha Edgecomb declined to speculate as to why the board instead chose April Griffin.

    "This is not to be flippant, but you would have to ask that question to the people who were part of taking that action," she said. "I was not a part of it."

    When asked that question on Tuesday, Susan Valdes and April Griffin said the board discussed the issue of succession at a retreat on Nov. 13....

    At Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board meeting, vice  chair Doretha Edgecomb gave outgoing chair Susan Valdes this certificate of gratitude for  service. Minutes later Valdes and three other members voted to make April Griffin the next chair instead of Edgecomb.
  7. This coffee controversy is not about Starbucks


    Our story this week about Idlewild Baptist Church's evolving relationship with the Hillsborough County school district generated a lot of reaction on both sides of the issue. It is, after all, November.

    One email arrived from a school district employee who was concerned that the church was handing out free coffee coupons during staff gatherings at Maniscalco Elementary School. There was no commentary, just this pair of images....

  8. Ovette Wilson is principal of Van Buren Middle School


    The new principal of Van Buren Middle School will Ovette Wilson, 46.

    Wilson, now assistant principal of Van Buren, has worked for the Hillsborough County school district since 2002, when he became a teacher at Middleton High School. He moved to Chamberlain High in 2007 as an assistant principal, then moved over to Ferrell and then Van Buren.

    The School Board also named Debra Fitzpatrick, 49, as principal of James Elementary School, moving over from Ballast Point Elementary. Cornelius Bobo, 47, now assistant principal at Spoto High, will become the new principal of North Tampa Alternative School. ...

    Debra Fitzpatrick, Principal, James Elementary School
  9. Griffin is in as Hillsborough School Board chair, Edgecomb is out


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board broke with tradition Tuesday and passed over its only black member by electing April Griffin to serve as chairwoman.

    The vote, followed by another to name Cindy Stuart as vice chair, revealed sharp divisions that still exist on the board 10 months after the widely criticized firing of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

    Since then, board members have spent long hours together working on a mission, vision and strategic plan for the administration of superintendent Jeff Eakins. ...

    April Griffin was elected as chairwoman of the Hillsborough School Board on Tuesday.
  10. When a church's mission is helping public schools, the boundaries are not always clear


    TAMPA — One of the most influential Baptist ministers in Florida stepped to the front of an East Tampa auditorium on a recent Monday afternoon.

    "This is not a Sunday school class and you will not be treated like a Sunday school class," said Ken Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church. "We have one purpose and we have one goal. To say thank you to you."

    His audience: dozens of principals and assistant principals, fresh from their day running Hillsborough County public schools. Before he introduced speaker Jeff Ruby, who would lead a discussion on emotional intelligence and management, Whitten gave more disclaimers:...

    Idlewild Baptist Pastor Ken Whitten talks to Hillsborough principals and assistant principals at a training session on Oct. 12.
  11. New principal is headed to Van Buren Middle


    Van Buren Middle School will get a new principal during Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board  meeting.

    Derrick Gaines, who has led the school since 2013, took a job last month as principal of the Bowers-Whitley Career Center, replacing the retiring Anthony Colucci.

    Van Buren, which serves the North Tampa area east of Sulphur Springs, is one of the lowest-performing middle schools in Florida and has not had a grade higher than a D since 2009.  Enrollment there dropped by 14 percent this year, to 457.

    The district is also replacing Angela Vickers at North Tampa Alternative School. Vickers, a longtime principal whose previous assignments include Sligh Middle, is now supervisor of technology training in the professional development department. ...

    Van Buren Middle School in North Tampa is due to get a new principal Tuesday.
  12. What happened in Vegas



    Outsource your landscaping. Stagger your bell times. Streamline your use of outside reading programs.

    These were just a few of the recommendations the Gibson Consulting Group gave the Clark County School District in 2011. A look at this report provides a hint of what they will consider if the Hillsborough County school district hires them, as expected, for a comprehensive audit. 

    Clark County -- which includes Las Vegas -- is the nation's fifth largest school district. When school officials there contracted with Gibson, they were contending with some issues similar to Hillsborough's: A rapid increase in the number of students who were bilingual and bicultural, the need to prepare for Common Core, and yearly uncertainty about state funding. Reading and math proficiency were low when compared with Houston, Broward and Miami-Dade County. The high school graduation rate was relatively low, as were participation rates in the Advanced Placement and SAT exam programs. 

    While the issues are not all the same, consider some of what Gibson suggested: 

    1. Cut down on duplicative curricula. The study identified 44 programs that had been purchased for reading alone. Their use varied from school to school. And, with more than 30 percent of students moving each year, teachers did not even know how to test the kids. 

    2. Cut down on tests. This was a theme repeated throughout the report. 

    3. Adopt a more realistic budget calendar. Goal setting and school improvement plans were happening after the budget was written, largely because of delayed funding information from the state. 

    Some of what consultants might recommend will not be well received by families and labor groups. 

    For example: The Gibson group recommended that low-enrollment AP courses be replaced by a virtual learning model. 

    They asked for relaxed work rules for bus drivers, to boost efficiency; and an outsourcing of custodial work. They found the Vegas school district was paying $2.34 per square foot to clean the schools, well above the industry benchmark of $1.59, and district wages were one reason for the difference. They also recommended that the district outsource its landscaping work, (The Hillsborough district did this during the recession -- and wound up with some landscape workers with lengthy arrest records.) 

    The consultants also called for more transparency in the budgeting process, including school-by-school breakdowns; and improved monitoring of customer service....

  13. Following budget problems, Hillsborough School Board members want a full-scale efficiency audit


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board members called Tuesday for a top-of-the-line efficiency study to correct runaway spending that, if unchecked, would threaten the district's credit.

    Board members made it clear at a workshop that they trust superintendent Jeff Eakins and don't want anyone to think the district is in a crisis.

    But after years of questions under the leadership of MaryEllen Elia and a July surprise that the reserve fund was being depleted, members want a holistic look at spending....

    In July, the Hillsborough County School Board learned that the district was spending down its reserves. The account was well over the legal threshold but shrinking at a speed that alarmed bond rating firms, which affects the district’s ability to borrow. [ photo illustration] 
  14. A celebration of culture


    Families from Booker T. Washington Elementary School filled the Robert W. Saunders Public Library Monday evening to recognize the Hillsborough Alliance of Black School Educators.

    It helped that there were musical numbers by the children: El Juego Chirimbolo by the second grade, a Latin Merengue Fusion performance by the 3rd grade drummers and a dance performance called La Gozadera.

    Principal Anthony Montoto announced that 250 parents attended a recent conference night, representing approximately half the student body....

    Robert W. Saunders Library on Monday night for The Black History Experience
  15. Following the money in Hillsborough


    With the start of the new school year, Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins vowed to get spending under control. With School Board approval, he hired the Gibson Consulting Group, which specializes in school district finances.

    On Tuesday, Greg Gibson will provide a status report as board members settle on a scope of work.

    Gibson has been reviewing district reports and meeting one-on-one with board members, according to the agenda for Tuesday's 9 a.m. workshop. The gathering at 901 E Kennedy Boulevard is open to the public....