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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 could cash in with HB 7069 grants


    There's still no word on whether Hillsborough County will join a growing number of school districts suing the state to challenge the legality of House Bill 7069, that sweeping state education law that, among other things, limits how districts can use federal ant-poverty funds

    But here's a wrinkle: Twenty-five schools statewide stand to get financial assistance under the "Schools of Hope" component of the bill. And Hillsborough has far more eligible schools than anyone else. The district, which also has more low-reading schools (39) than any other, has 18 schools the state considers to be "failing," and these do not include about a half-dozen schools such as Potter Elementary that are already in state-supervised turnaround programs. By comparison, Miami-Dade has five schools on the new list, Orange County has six, Pasco has two and Pinellas has five. The whole list has only 93 schools on it....

    Folsom Elementary School is one of 18 in Hillsborough that are eligible for "Schools of Hope" funding.
  2. District to Hillsborough teachers: Suggested pay raises would break the bank


    TAMPA — Paying Hillsborough County public school teachers what they want this year could put the school district more than $100 million in the red, officials said Wednesday.

    That amount includes a deficit of more than $50 million caused by lower state funding levels and rising costs. The teacher raises and associated expenses would add another roughly $65 million.

    "Obviously, that's a lot of money," the district's employee relations manager, Mark West, told union leaders at a negotiating session....

    Photo illustration. []
  3. The school year begins with more kids in charters. What's the impact?


    TAMPA — Her four-bedroom South Tampa home gave her access to the best public schools Hillsborough County had to offer.

    But when Lynda Myers Barack saw the size of Mabry Elementary School, she said, "it freaked me out."

    The closest Jewish private school was 15 miles away. She wasn't sold on any of the local charter schools.

    She found a suitable option for her two sons: MacFarland Park Elementary, a gem of a magnet school in the center of town....

    Students enjoy lunch at Kid's Community College in Riverview, one of several charter schools to pop up locally in recent years, giving parents more to think about as they choose a school for their children. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  4. Hillsborough welcomes new principals for 2017-18


    Some Hillsborough County public schools will open with new principals, others will start the year with leaders who were appointed near the end of 2016-17. Here's the lineup of new school leaders for the coming year:

    Cahoon Elementary /Van Buren Middle: Ovett Wilson, 38. Joined the district: 2002. Last job: Principal, Van Buren Middle.

    Cimino Elementary: Joanne Griffiths, 53. Joined the district: 1991. Last job: Principal, Cahoon Elementary....

    Stacy Arena is the principal of Davidsen Middle School. [HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS]
  5. Cuban diplomat reflects on U.S. relationship: 'Cuba was treated horribly'


    Few topics are more controversial in Florida than Cuba, a nation that has held fast to communism despite lying 90 miles from the shores of a capitalist superpower. It's a place where startling poverty results from either a longtime U.S. trade embargo or a half-century of communism, depending on one's point of view. While visiting recently, Times staff writer Marlene Sokol met with Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a scholar who served as a Cuban diplomat in a half-dozen countries and was ambassador to the European Union in the 1990s. Outside Cuba, he has taught at institutions including Harvard and Johns Hopkins University. Today Alzugaray lives in Havana and is a consultant in the public and private sectors. Alzugaray's views, especially those about Cuba's human rights record, would likely be contradicted by Cuban immigrants in the United States. His comments are edited for space and clarity....

    A classic car on the streets of Havana. (SARAH KLEIN  |  Special to the Times)
  6. Following the Money: Report on district's financial woes blames everyone but the district


    Since the Hillsborough County schools' budget crisis erupted two years ago, members of the public and even the School Board have spotlighted extravagant spending practices in the large district.

    These include a no-bid, $324,000 yearly contract with a local Cable television group. They include grant-funded programs that are sustained, at district expense, after the grants run out. Case in point: The final months of teaching reforms under the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which ultimately paid $80 million instead of the $100 million that had been announced....

  7. More IB diplomas are earned in Hillsborough this year


    The Hillsborough County school district reported high numbers of its International Baccaulaureate students earning IB diplomas this year.

    Hillsborough High School increased to 97 percent, up 1 percentage point from last year

    King High School maintained its 90 percent-plus diploma rate since its inception by posting a 92 percent diploma rate this year.  Robinson High School maintained a 95 percent rate. Strawberry Crest High School increased to 96 percent, up from 94 percent....

  8. Middleton High School is still without a grade


    In the large batch of school grades and test scores that were released in recent weeks, this stuck out at Middleton High School:

    An "I" grade, one of 101 among more than 3,000 schools in the state. The "I" follows a string of C's for the East Tampa school, home to a technology and engineering magnet.

    "Incomplete" grades happen for one of two reasons, the Department of Education said: Not enough students took their state tests, or there was suspicion about the validity of the tests based on how they were administered....

    Middleton High School in Tampa has an "Incomplete" school grade. The state says not enough students took their FSA and EOC exams.
  9. Hillsborough school district loses another communications chief


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is again without someone to run its communications department, which some consider the weakest link in the large organization.

    School Board members have consistently given superintendent Jeff Eakins his lowest ratings in communications as the district weathers massive financial hurdles coupled with increased competition from privately managed charter schools....

    T.G. Taylor, after a career as a communications officer in the military, lasted less than six months as community relations chief for the Hillsborough County Public Schools. He was fired in November. [LinkedIn]
  10. Teachers are warned of "dire" finances at Hillsborough's opening bargaining session


    TAMPA — Nearly two months late before they even sat down, the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers' union started pay negotiations Thursday for the 2017-18 school year.

    That's this year, with students streaming into the schools on Aug. 10. Eighteen months ago the two sides agreed they should start the process during the first week in May to avoid having it drag on into the winter holidays....

    Mark West is Employee Relations Manager for the Hillsborough County School District. SKIP O'ROURKE | Times
  11. In Hillsborough, a social worker tasked with helping kids has troubles of her own


    CLEARWATER — As a social worker for Hillsborough County schools, Marissa Mitchell holds one of the system's most sensitive jobs, helping children navigate deeply personal family problems.

    But Mitchell has had issues of her own, including a broken marriage and an ugly dispute with her mother-in-law that led to allegations of stalking, and earlier this month landed her in Pinellas County Jail....

    Marissa Mitchell, recently released from Pinellas County Jail, is a social worker for the Hillsborough County public school system.
  12. Teacher bargaining begins in Hillsborough


    Negotiating will begin Thursday for nearly 20,000 workers represented by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

    And it could get interesting.

    Teachers have been saying, loudly and on social media, that they expect nothing less than the pay plan the district rolled out as it implemented the 2009 Gates Foundation reforms. That pay plan, which took effect in 2013, calls for $4,000 raises every three years to teachers who are graded at least satisfactory, which is almost always the case....

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins greeting teachers at a training event in 2015
  13. A new principal in Sulphur Springs K-8


    Who will fill Julie Scardino's shoes at Sulphur Springs K-8 School?

    The Hillsborough district went all the way to Chicago to replace her.

    Chantel Angeletti comes from Byrne Elementary School, where she has worked since 2015.

    Before that she worked as a lead teacher, instructional support leader and assistant principal at schools in Chicago.

    Scardino is now the principal of Egypt Lake Elementary...

  14. Robert E. Lee Elementary Take II


    Near the end of Tuesday's 3 p.m. School Board meeting, there could be another discussion of Robert E. Lee Elementary, a predominantly African American school in Tampa Heights that is named for a Civil War Confederate general.

    The school renaming issue is on the agenda as an information item. The applicable district policies - including the one that makes renaming a school an 18-month process -- are here....

    This gentleman did not speak at the last Hillsborough County School Board meeting, just observed as others debated the suitability of Robert E. Lee as a name for an elementary school.
  15. Gibson, what it means so far


    In response to questions asked at last week's Hillsborough County School Board budget workshop, the administsration issued this report on what it has done so far to implement recommendations from the Gibson Consulting Group.

    The three reports covered a lot of ground, and some areas show more progress than others....