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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. Charter schools and where they get their students


    If you were listening at the beginning of Tuesday's day-long Hillsborough County School Board budget workshop, you heard district leaders say they project 21,626 charter school students when classes resume in Aug. 10.

    That's a huge jump from the past year's 17,723, and about one tenth of all students.

    But charters are all the rage, and cutbacks in bus service for middle and high school students might be a game-changer for some families....

    Students eat lunch at Kids Community College in Riverview
  2. Hillsborough schools' budget woes were worse than we knew


    TAMPA — Two years after a financial meltdown that Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins refused to call "a crisis," he told a roomful of district employees just how bad things were.

    The main reserve account lost $83.6 million between 2014 and 2015. And that was after the district transferred $55 million in, much of it from a workers compensation fund.

    The nation's eighth-largest school district, it turns out, was on track to lose another $130 million or more the next year. "That would have put us below zero dollars," Eakins said Tuesday....

    Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins told the School Board that he has outlined steps to prepare for the coming year.
  3. Speaker Richard Corcoran to Hillsborough schools: Stop blaming the Legislature while you waste money


    TAMPA — As it attempts to put its financial house in order, the Hillsborough County School District is being made a poster child for runaway public school spending.

    The accuser: Richard Corcoran, the Republican state lawmaker from Land O'Lakes and a driving force behind this year's sweeping public education bill.

    His message: The bill (HB 7069) is not why district officials are struggling to pay their expenses. Rather, Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, "It's their bloat, inefficiency and gross over-spending. Their problem is their mismanagement."...

    Richard Corcoran said much of his criticism referred to the prior adminis?tration.
  4. Budget woes force the Hillsborough school district to rethink its role as a job provider


    TAMPA — At one time or another, five members of Carrie Williams' family have worked for the Hillsborough County School District.

    Three still do, all at Shaw Elementary School in North Tampa.

    Ashley Williams, 28, is a secretary. Savon Williams, 23, is an assistant teacher. Their mother, 47, is the principal's secretary.

    "I trained them not to call me 'Mom' at work," said Williams, a school district employee since 1999....

    With 26,000 people on its payroll, the Hillsborough County school district takes pride in its role as the area’s top employer. But budget woes are forcing the district to take a hard look at reducing its workforce. []
  5. Sunshine notice


    IMPORTANT: Anyone attending the Hillsborough school board workshop on the budget, a day-long event, will need to head east to the district's Silo Bend facility just east of Brandon.

    The board also is doing some of its business in committees and, since these groups have multiple board members, they are open to the public under the Sunshine law.

    Here's this week's lineup:...

  6. No quick thaw for Hillsborough hiring freeze


    The Hillsborough County School District continues to comb through its payrolls in trying to determine where it must hire, and which vacancies it can absorb.

    In other words: The hiring freeze continues.

    This notice went out to principals at the end of the work week:...

  7. New principals in Hillsborough


    These principal appointments were approved Tuesday by the Hillsborough County School Board:

    Brandon EPIC3 Center: Cornelius Bobo, 49. Bobo joined the school district in 1993 and worked last as principal of the North Tampa EPIC3 Center.

    Cahoon Elementary School and Van Buren Middle School: Ovett Wilson, 38. This move was widely expected, as Wilson has earned rave reviews since taking over as principal of Van Buren in late 2015. Wilson joined the school district in 2002 to teach at Middleton High School. He became an assistant principal at Chamberlain High in 2007 and then held administrative posts at Ferrell Middle and Van Buren, which he joined in 2014. ...

    Lydia Sierra is the new principal of Orange Grove Middle Magnet School.
  8. The who, the where, the why, and who's upset about it


    The Hillsborough County School Board approved 39 administrative appointments at its meeting Tuesday.

    Seven were adopted unanimously.

    The other 32, listed on two pages, were approved 6-1 with board member April Griffin dissenting.

    Her reason: Not enough transparency in the decision to staff the area offices with principal coaches who will also assume some duties of a deputy area superintendent, at a time when finances are forcing the district to pare down its workforce....

    Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, director of the teachers' union, said the district did not save money by not replacing the three retiring area superintendents. Rather, she said, the it spent too much when it double-filled those jobs.
  9. As Confederate monuments fall, Tampa's Robert E. Lee Elementary could get name change


    TAMPA — Add the Hillsborough County School District to institutions that are being asked to reconsider their monuments to the Old South.

    Robert E. Lee Elementary School might get a new name.

    But that process, something that is already happening in school districts around the country, will take at least 18 months, according to a district policy designed to avoid frequent name changes....

    Robert E. Lee Elementary School was given its name in 1943. Supporters of a name change want to rename it Woodson Elementary, after a historian who lobbied for Black History Month.
  10. Teacher hiring freeze in Hillsborough could impact disadvantaged students the most


    TAMPA — With classes starting in under two months, the Hillsborough County School District has frozen teacher hiring as it takes stock of its needs.

    But depending on how long the freeze lasts, filling hundreds of jobs could create a scramble with a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable students.

    An analysis of 588 instructional vacancies listed on the district website last week showed more than 20 percent are in special education jobs, teaching students with autism, emotional behavioral disabilities and other classifications....

    Six teacher vacancies were posted last week at Lockhart Elementary School. That number, though, might not be exact.
  11. Hillsborough's rankings in the FSA race


    Sifting through the mountain of FSA and End of Course data that was released on Thursday, Hillsborough district officials found some bright spots worth showcasing, including gains at some of their more difficult schools.

    The results included a 27 point improvement, measured by the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 or above, in 4th grade math at Edison Elementary, one of seven high-needs Elevate schools; and sharp jumps in fourth grade English language arts (19 points) and math (24 points) at Gibsonton Elementary, a state turnaround school....

  12. More details about the Hillsborough hiring freeze


    Here's the letter that went out this week from Superintendent Jeff Eakins announcing the hiring freeze in Hillsborough County:

    "Dear Principals and District Leaders,

    First, thank you again for the leadership you provide everyday on behalf of students.

    Despite challenging times, you continue to inspire staff and students to achieve great things.

    I know you have been staying informed regarding the additional challenges we are going to face over the next several months due to the recent legislative session which both reduced our per pupil funding and introduced education bills that will siphon more maintenance dollars from our budget as well as prescribe a methodology for allocating Title I funds that would force us to remove resources from our highest needs schools.  Even if the governor vetoes HB 7069, the budget alone will force us to make extremely difficult decisions....

    Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins announced a hiring freeze this week as the district comes to terms with disappointing revenues and a number of financial obligations.
  13. Test scores are up in Hillsborough, but Elevate schools still lag


    A first look at the state's FSA and End of Course exam scores show overall progress in Hillsborough County with work to do at its highest-needs schools.

    The districtwide news: English and math scores rose, almost across the board.

    For grades 3 to 10, the percentage of students scoring at level 3 or higher rose from 50 to 52 percent between 2016 and 2017.

    In math, for grades 3 to 8, the passing rate stayed unchanged at 55....

  14. Hiring freeze signals more spending cuts in Hillsborough schools


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is now under a hiring freeze as administrators try to figure out how they will cut spending by $107 million in the coming school year.

    Some positions, such as bus drivers, are exempt.

    But for the most part, district leaders are holding off on hiring from outside.

    "We do a freeze to protect our current employees," superintendent Jeff Eakins said Thursday during a School Board workshop on the budget....

    Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins, defending the hiring freeze, said it is to “protect our current employees.”
  15. Expect "a philosophical discussion" as the Hillsborough district looks at cutting $85 million in employee pay



    Shortly before 9 a.m., Hillsborough schools chief business officer Gretchen Saunders handed out a revised agenda packet that dramatically alters the plan to cut costs.

    Instead of the Page 10 that we attached, it provides these goals:

    Reduce salary expenses by 5 percent for $44 million (down from 8 percent, or $85 million)

    Reduce benefits by 5 percent 

    Reduce contracts by $10 million (that's an increase to 20 percent)...