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. Common ground -- with one exception -- on Common Core


    It's not hard to find an argument about Common Core.

    Members of the Hillsborough County School Board, who held an informational workshop on the issue Tuesday, didn't even have to leave their conference table.

    In the final moments of the session, member Stacy White announced, "I refuse to be a PR agent for Common Core."

    Espousing the views of many fellow conservatives, White said, "I'm concerned about federal over-reach ... We should be driving this at the local level. When we lose that local control, we get a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing model that we have today."...

    Hillsborough curriculum specialists crammed into a conference room to help the board understand the Florida Standards, aka Common Core.
  2. Bus driver complaints continue in Hillsborough


    More than 50 transportation employees of the Hillsborough County school district turned out Monday evening for a meeting in Apollo Beach that this time included four School Board members.

    Candy Olson, whose district includes Apollo Beach, listened and acknowledged that the drivers have not always been served by innovations called for in a 2007 reorganization. And she said she regrets that the district didn't move sooner to buy buses....

    School bus drivers at a town hall meeting in Apollo Beach
  3. Democrats: Traditional public schools are shortchanged as construction funding flows to charters


    TAMPA — Despite the prospect of renewed construction money for traditional public schools, two Democratic leaders insist the state is still giving too generously to charters.

    U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and state Rep. Mark Danish, both Democrats, stated their case Monday in front of South Tampa's Wilson Middle School.

    "We're here today to report a theft," Castor said. "There has been a theft of tax dollars from our public schools."...

  4. Hillsborough's aging bus fleet is unreliable, departing supervisor says


    TAMPA — Richard "Dewayne" Bethune just quit his job with the Hillsborough County school system, supervising workers who repair hundreds of school buses.

    It's frustrating work, said Bethune, 51, who spent six years with the district. The buses are old. The mechanics are not always up to the job. And, to hear him tell it, the district doesn't back him up when he tries to supervise them....

  5. Elia describes the Hillsborough district's response after a child died


    With a lawsuit pending, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia held back from discussing the district's response to the 2012 death of special-needs student Isabella Herrera.

    With the case settled, Elia penned this guest column for the Tampa Bay Times.

    In it, she describes the steps district officials took to document Isabella's medical emergency on a school bus, provide emotional support at Sessums Elementary School and respond to inquiries from lawyers. She also describes the response on the school bus when Isabella stopped breathing, noting that law enforcement determined no crime was committed. Based on medical testimony, she wrote, "there is no conclusive opinion as to whether different decisions on the bus would have yielded a different outcome." Regardless, she continued, improvements have been made in special-needs student transportation....

  6. Transportation Town Hall meeting in Hillsborough


    Parents, employees and anyone with concerns about  the Hillsborough County school bus system is invited to another community town hall meeting Monday night in Apollo Beach.

    School Board members have held meetings so far in Town 'N Country and Valrico, and dozens of drivers have turned out. Separately, the school district has been speaking with transportation employees in focus groups as a consultant takes a broad look at the department.

    Monday's meeting, hosted by board member April Griffin, is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Covington Park Club House, 6806 Covington Garden Dr. in Apollo Beach....

  7. One more Parent University is planned in Hillsborough


    If you haven't been to Parent University yet, you have one more chance before the school year ends. A session is planned April 26 from 7:30 a.m. to noon at Armwood High School, 12000 E U.S. Highway 92 in Seffner.

    The free sessions, which also include lunch and child care, are one-stop shopping for anyone who wants real-time information about Common Core, technology programs, college counseling and other topics. The website lists the sessions, and parents are asked to register in advance.

    Parent University is a partnership between Hillsborough County Public Schools, the Alliance for Public Schools, and Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association....

  8. Complaint targets Hillsborough school operated by Charter Schools USA


    TAMPA — As if Woodmont Charter School did not have enough problems, a former teacher has lodged a discrimination complaint and says the F-rated school uses teachers who are not properly certified.

    Tammy Gilmore, a community activist who now lives in Atlanta, has written to Hillsborough County Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia and charter schools director Jenna Hodgens, saying the school in Temple Terrace is out of compliance with numerous state regulations....

  9. Hillsborough district interviews with four transportation trainers


    Despite the label, the transcript of interviews with four Hillsborough transportation trainers is a public record, and it was made available to the Tampa Bay Times on Friday. We've requested a copy of the full 200 pages. At the end of this post, there's an explanation from the district for what you see in the picture.

    In the meantime, here is some of what the trainers said, elaborating on complaints they made in a Jan. 29 memo....

  10. Privatize school buses? No way, says their union


    The Hillsborough County school district is the county's single biggest employer, and that includes more than 1,300 people in the transportation department.

    Their pay ranges from just under $8,000 for the aides who assist the special-needs children to between $70,000 and $104 for the top-level managers.

    Now the "P" word is being spoken: Privatize.

    School Board chairwoman Carol Kurdell said it first at Tuesday night's meeting. Along with all the other issues the board is considering -- including which buses to buy to restock an aging fleet -- they should discuss privatization, she said....

  11. Hillsborough school superintendent did not know about child's death for months


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia says she did not learn about the controversial death of Isabella Herrera until nine months after it happened, according to legal documents released Wednesday.

    Yet other top district officials knew about it shortly after Herrera died on Jan. 26, 2012. And attorneys for the girl's family sent multiple letters to the district before holding a news conference to announce a lawsuit against Hillsborough schools....

    Isabella Herrera, 7, died on Jan. 26, 2012, after she stopped breathing on a school bus.
  12. Mother says educators did not learn enough from her child's death


    TAMPA — Two years after a disabled child stopped breathing on a Hillsborough County school bus, questions remain about who should have known about her death and whether meaningful improvements have followed.

    The school district's attorney says that the system is safer and that it settled a lawsuit by the family of Isabella Herrera because of inflammatory statements from board members who suggested it is not....

    Lisa Herrera addresses the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday. She is the mother of Isabella Herrera, the 7-year-old who stopped breathing on a school bus two years ago.
  13. Middleton principal is promoted


    Owen Young, 43, is being promoted from Middleton principal to area leadership director in Area 7 of the Hillsborough County School district. Before his current job he was assistant principal of King High and Middleton.

    Marcos Murillo, 38, principal of Webb Middle School, will be director of Area 8. He's been with the district since 1999, when he taught at Stewart Middle School.

    Jonathan Grantham, 37, principal of the Roland Park K-8 school, is the new principal of a K-8 school in New Tampa that results from the merger of Turner Elementary and Bartels Middle School. He joined the district in 2011 as principal of Metropolitan Ministries Partnership School....

    Owen Young
  14. Hillsborough school bus drivers' complaints and safety concerns mount


    TAMPA — Dana Campbell had to drive a child in a wheelchair with wheels coming off the frame. Otella Lowe was stranded and no one could find her on the school district's global positioning system.

    Twila Tillman asked a group of bus drivers who met Monday night in Valrico if they had been trained to care for their medically fragile students. "No," they said in unison.

    About 80 drivers gathered for the second of two town hall meetings organized by Hillsborough County School Board members about school transportation, particularly involving special-needs children. They described faulty equipment, inadequate training and management decisions they say are misguided....

    Corie Holmes, a Hillsborough school district transportation trainer, addresses School Board members in the presence of bus drivers and attendants during a meeting Monday about transportation issues. About 80 drivers attended the event.
  15. Community meeting Monday night for Hillsborough


    Two Hillsborough County School Board members have been holding community meetings to get input about transportation and other pressing issues, which raises some questions of etiquette. Such as: What's the proper way to notify the public, especially since some of the meetings attract more than one board member?

    Susan Valdes posted flyers. April Griffin, who will have a meeting Monday night in Plant City, asked her secretary to send out a notice. The district's media office sent out a sunshine notice too, although you will find more information -- including the address -- on the first flyer....