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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. From cafeteria food to budget cuts, Hillsborough students let the School Board know they're watching


    Schools are crowded. Success coaches are being redeployed to classrooms. And thousands of middle and high school students will lose their bus rides in August.

    "Is it worth compromising safety to save money?" Alonso High School student Paola Meneses asked the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday.

    The yearly high school forum was a chance to vent about the usual issues, such as lunchroom food and grade point average formulas, and topics that are in the news as the district tries to cut costs....

    Julia Simpson, Erica Watson and Kelcey Thompson made up the Brandon High contingent at last week’s student forum. Students vented about timely issues and usual complaints.
  2. Stuart: The school district does work with the county on roads. Let us count the ways


    Told on Tuesday that Hillsborough County Commissioners were blaming the school district for the growing busing mess in FishHawk Ranch, School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart said, hardly.

    She was especially irked to hear the allegation that the district builds schools without talking to anybody from the county....

    Contrary to what some Hillsborough County commissioners are suggesting, school and county officials meet regularly to discuss schools and traffic, School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart said.
  3. Hillsborough commissioners wash hands of School Board's bus cuts


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County sent a message Tuesday to parents concerned about the school district's decision to end some busing services in August:

    We had nothing to do with this, and there's not much we can do to fix it.

    The Hillsborough County School Board voted in December to end so-called "courtesy busing," meaning free bus service for middle and high school students who live within 2 miles of their school....

    As a cost-saving measure, the Hillsborough County School District is stopping bus runs for students living within 2 miles of their schools. [SKIP O’ROURKE  |   Times (2015)]
  4. The 411 on Leto Little School


    In response to our public records request, the Hillsborough County School District provided pricing and payment information about Leto Little, the preschool operated at Leto High School.

    Leto Little was in the news recently because of an allegation that School Board member Susan Valdes used her position to arrange free child care for her grandchild. The state Commission on Ethics is investigating. Valdes says the complaint has no merit....

    School Board member Susan Valdes was accused in a complaint of arranging free child care for her grandchild at Leto High School's preschool. She says the complaint has no merit. The state is investigating.
  5. Twitter fireworks over a school district spokesman's firing


    T.G. Taylor, the former community relations chief of the Hillsborough County School District, took to Twitter on Thursday to blame School Board member Susan Valdes for his abrupt firing in November.

    "Make this go away. That's what this board member told me," Taylor tweeted, referring to a television news story about Valdes' travel expenses. "When I refused to break the law, I was fired."...

    This tweet was posted, then removed, but not before copies were passed around on social media. On Friday, school district leaders responded.
  6. Teacher of the Year finalists are named in Hillsborough County


    TAMPA — Teacher of the Year finalists were announced Wednesday for Hillsborough County, along with diversity teacher and non-instructional employee finalists.

    The three winners will be named at an annual banquet on Feb. 28.

    The group of 12 included specialists in reading and math, exceptional student education and welding.

    The finalists for Teacher of the Year are:

    Katerina Pawloski, fifth grade, Tinker K-8 School....

    Cathelyn Gregoire, a special education English teacher at Armwood High School, is a finalist for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year.
  7. Questions surround the ethics complaint against Susan Valdes


    Did Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes cross ethical lines in making sure her grandchildren had access to good child care?

    Or was she targeted unfairly by political rivals who are making a big deal over nothing?

    Without details about how things work at Leto Little School, it's hard to know....

    Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes said, through her lawyer, that political rivals made a baseless allegation that she obtained free child care at a school site for her grandchild. The state is investigating, which is routine after such a complaint.
  8. Teacher of the Year finalists will be named in Hillsborough


    Come back to at 4 p.m. today for a list of the finalists for this year's Hillsborough Excellence in Education awards. 

    Twelve finalists are being surprised today at their schools. The list includes three diversity educators, three support employees and six finalists for the coveted prize of Teacher of the Year.

    The three winners will be named on Feb. 28....

    Mary Beth Radigan, a special education teacher at Plant City, is the current Hillsborough Teacher of the Year. Her successor will be named on Feb. 28.
  9. State ethics commission investigates Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes in response to a teacher's complaint


    TAMPA — The state's ethics agency is investigating an allegation that Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes arranged free child care for her grandchild at a center based at Leto High School.

    Laurie Rodriguez, an adult education teacher at Erwin Technical College, filed the complaint with the state Commission on Ethics. She did so after anonymous letters described special favors for the board member at Leto Little School, a fee-based center that is operated under the district's career and technical education department....

    Anonymous letters claim Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes received free child care.
  10. Hillsborough schools will see specialists "redeployed" to the classrooms next week


    TAMPA — It was a happy day when Lauren Piper was promoted in July from classroom teacher to writing resource teacher.

    Traveling from school to school, she got to demonstrate techniques she had perfected over a decade that got kids excited about crisp, expressive writing.

    "We're like the writing elves who spread cheer everywhere we go," she said.

    But that's over now. Piper, 34, will soon be back in the classroom — just one classroom, and not by choice....

  11. Hillsborough high school students will see reduction in final exams


    TAMPA — High school students in Hillsborough County will see testing relief this school year as the school district continues to chip away at duplicate exams.

    More than a dozen classes, from Advanced Placement French to International Baccalaureate visual arts, are affected by the change.

    "By the reduction of these exams, schools and students will have less stress over having to take duplicate testing in these courses," superintendent Jeff Eakins wrote in a recent memo to School Board members....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins, center, says students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate will face less stress at the end of the school year under the new plan that eliminates the requirement of taking the same tests multiple times.
  12. High school graduation rates are up in Florida, Tampa Bay


    In a year of painful cuts to stem hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve fund losses, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins never lost sight of a goal that sometimes drew laughter: A 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020.

    On Friday, that target came closer to reality. The state released 2015-16 numbers showing 79.1 percent of Hillsborough students who were scheduled to earn diplomas in 2016 did just that....

  13. At Mort Elementary, the huge gift box contained a 6-foot-1 surprise



    Teachers at Mort Elementary School worried that Genesis Cruz might be overwhelmed.

    The soft-spoken fourth-grader was about to get the surprise of a lifetime in a courtyard crowded with dignitaries, reporters and more than 800 children amped up for the last day before winter break.

    But it was U.S. Army Sgt. Ricardo Cruz who lost his composure Friday when Genesis, 10, opened an oversized gift box and saw him standing there in full uniform, home early from an eight-month deployment in Afghanistan....

    Sgt. Ricardo Cruz is more than an uncle to Genesis. He acts as a role model and confidant, talking to her about her studies. He also provides moral support for her family.
  14. Sunday Conversation: Schools, transportation leader Cindy Stuart talks school bus cuts


    Cindy Stuart chairs the Hillsborough County School Board and is a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the local transportation policy board. The two roles give her a unique perspective on cuts the school district is making in "courtesy busing," a service the school district has provided for more than 12,000 students living within two miles of their schools.

    To save money, the district will end courtesy busing for as many as 7,500 middle and high school students, starting in August. Elementary school changes will come a year later. Stuart discussed this move with Tampa Bay Times reporter Marlene Sokol....

    Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart says the school district will work with parents and other agencies to find transportation alternatives once the district eliminates its courtesy busing service for children living within two miles of school. 

  15. Hillsborough to keep controversial SpringBoard textbooks, citing replacement costs


    TAMPA — SpringBoard, the much-maligned math and English textbooks, have endured more than a year of loud complaints from teachers and students in the Hillsborough County schools.

    But instead of replacing them all, district officials promised at a School Board workshop Tuesday to make sure teachers have the training and, in some cases, supplemental materials they need to use the English lessons and texts more effectively....

    Photo illustration. []