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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. More about Hillsborough's HR chief


    More information is emerging about Thursday's firing of Hillsborough County School District human resources chief Stephanie Woodford, but it's contradictory.

    Woodford told the Tampa Bay Times Friday that when Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez fired her for cause, he did not say why.

    "I said, 'What is the cause?' and he said, 'I don't know yet,'" Woodford told The Times. "He said, 'We're going to send you a letter and tell you what the cause is. We'll send it to you in a letter.' When I told him I could not respond if I did not know the cause, he said, 'We haven't decided yet.'"...

  2. At Riverview High, a teacher who supports LGBT students is accused of shutting out others


    TAMPA — Lora Jane Riedas knew something like this could happen. "I'm out. I'm gay. I work at the same school as my wife," she said.

    But when the 45-year-old math teacher got that call from the principal of Riverview High School, she had trouble wrapping her head around the news: She was under investigation in the Hillsborough County School District.

    A conservative advocacy group was alleging she didn't let students wear crosses and that her efforts to help LGBT students feel comfortable in her classroom had crossed a line into political activism. It made the others feel "marginalized and excluded, and not full members of the classroom community," they said....

    Decor in Riedas’ room, including stickers saying “safe space,” are included in the Liberty Counsel complaint.
  3. Communication still a weak spot for Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools superintendent Jeff Eakins has integrity and treats others with respect. But not all his underlings share those traits. And on his watch, the district has not been good at communicating with the public.

    These are themes of Eakins' yearly performance reviews from his bosses on the School Board. They were released Tuesday, minutes after board members wrapped up a meeting where some harshly criticized the way the district communicated a new bell schedule to the public for more than 200 schools....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins, shown at Mort Elementary School, has had a mostly good year but some on the School Board say he needs to improve on communication. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
  4. Hillsborough school district fires its HR chief


    Stephanie Woodford was "relieved of her duties" as the Hillsborough County School District's head of human relations "with cause," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Thursday.

    There was no information about what the cause was. Efforts to reach Woodford by phone were unsuccessful.

    Woodford will be replaced, on an interim basis, by Marie Whelan, the district's general manager of employee evaluation. The district will conduct a search for a permanent replacement....

    Stephanie Woodford, the Hillsborough school district's chief of human resources, was fired Thursday.
  5. Hillsborough school system's finances called 'very dire' as money issues consume district leaders


    TAMPA — It was a long day of reckoning in the Hillsborough County school system, as board members, consultants and administrators discussed a variety of issues pertaining to rising costs and scarce public funds.

    In three separate sessions Tuesday, the School Board tossed around ways to manage a $3 billion operation while wrestling with population growth, aging buildings and a political climate that increasingly favors alternatives to government-run public schools....

    Board member April Griffin called the situation “very dire.”
  6. Aging computers flagged in Hillsborough schools, including one running COBOL


    TAMPA — Got COBOL? The Hillsborough County School District does.

    The nation's eighth-largest school district relies on a computer language that was invented in 1959, unfamiliar to a lot of programmers educated in the current century.

    The district uses it for a student information system that originally was housed in an IBM mainframe computer dating back to 1984. It spends $1.5 million annually to maintain the hardware and software....

    Programmers stand at the console of a UNIVAC I, which made use of COBOL. The programming language, invented in 1959, is being used in Hillsborough County’s student information system.
  7. Gibson, the Hillsborough school district's consultant, picks apart classroom practices in final report


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District shows promise in budgeting and teacher training, but has gaps in technology and its education of disabled students.

    These are among hundreds of observations in the third and final report from the Gibson Consulting Group , hired last year for an audit as the district struggled to reverse four years of steep financial losses....

    Greg Gibson is an efficiency consultant to the Hillsborough County School District. He will address the School Board Tuesday about his latest report on educational services. MARLENE SOKOL | Times
  8. Gibson Phase III Report is here (Phase I and II too)


    To read the full Phase III report from the Gibson Consulting Group to the Hillsborough County School District, click on these links:

    Executive Summary

    Chapter I: General Education...

  9. Hillsborough school officials say charters could help ease impact of enrollment boom


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials said Tuesday that they are willing to enlist an unlikely ally — charter schools — as they tackle a looming financial crunch brought on by growth in the coming years.

    With the district facing at least $1 billion in construction needs on top of close to another $1 billion in debt, School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart said, "I think this is an amazing opportunity for us to, as much as I don't want to say it out loud, partner with charters."...

    Students at Kid’s Community College make their way onto a basketball court for recess on May 11, 2016. The Riverview charter school’s growth is an example of how charters could ease the burden of a housing boom expected to hit the district over the next few years. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
  10. Gradebook podcast: An interview with Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins


    Hillsborough County schools superintendent Jeff Eakins has faced his share of tough issues during his nearly two years in office. Most recently, he's dealt with plans, since delayed, to alter school start times as a way to save millions of dollars in busing. He recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board about his tenure, and what lies ahead. Today's podcast includes extended excerpts from that session....

  11. Report: Population growth will mean more debt and painful rezoning for Hillsborough schools


    TAMPA — Already nearly $1 billion in debt and stammering over what time to start school days, the Hillsborough County School District faces more upheaval from a population boom that promises to further strain its finances and test its political will for the next 15 years.

    An average of 10,000 new homes will be permitted each year in that time, mostly in southeastern Hillsborough, requiring 23 to 38 new schools and frequent changes in attendance zone boundaries, according to a report by the Tindale Oliver consulting firm....

    The density of many eastern Hillsborough County neighborhoods in 2005 illustrates the boom that prompted the school district to build an average of five schools a year from 1999 to 2009. A consultant says a milder boom will require 2.5 new schools a year over the next 15 years.
  12. Hillsborough school times will remain the same for 2017-18 but could change the following year


    TAMPA — Families in Hillsborough County have another year to adjust to planned schedule changes in the public schools.

    While superintendent Jeff Eakins will recommend new hours at a special School Board meeting on April 25, the schedule would not take effect until August 2018.

    "All the questions that people don't have all the answers to yet, this will give us time to provide clarity," he said....

    Hillsborough school chief Jeff Eakins’ plan was met with outcry.
  13. Bell times recommendation is expected soon


    Superintendent Jeff Eakins is expected to decide soon how much of a bell time change he will recommend to the Hillsborough County School Board.

    A specially called board meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on April 25. An agenda should be posted a week in advance. But, if Eakins decides to put the bell schedule issue entirely on hold, that meeting would not be needed.

    Eakins said last week he is likely to go ahead with at least some of the plan, in the interest of getting students to school on time and saving $2.7 million a year....

    We're waiting for a recommendation from Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins about school hours for the 2017-18 year.
  14. Panel in Tampa explores challenges to public education


    TAMPA — The challenges facing public schools were too numerous to cover in two hours, and the small crowd included a visible row of people who like private school scholarships.

    But Saturday's Real Talk gathering touched on the high points: racial disparities, fast-paced legislative decisions and competing demands on limited funds.

    "I care about the kid that's being left behind in public schools," said state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, before praising a program that uses state tax credits to help families pay for private school....

    Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart