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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. Money is the issue as Hillsborough strains to fix school air conditioners


    TAMPA — With more than 200 repair requests tumbling in every day, school officials in Hillsborough County are broadening their circle of air conditioning mechanics as they struggle to control a debilitating cycle of breakdowns and sweltering classrooms.

    "We can't leave any stone unturned," Chief Operating Officer Chris Farkas told a School Board committee on Monday.

    But there was little evidence of a fast cure to a problem that has been years, perhaps decades in the making....

    Hillsborough school officials want to expand the number of contractors who work on broken school air conditioning systems. But it all gets rolled into a workload that has increased by 40 percent since 2011. "With no increase in budget, no increase in equipment and no increase in manpower, and as the equipment gets older and needs more maintenance, this is going to continue to grow," said Robert Weggman, general manager of maintenance." [
  2. Hillsborough leaders ask for patience as multiple schools still suffer from broken air conditioners


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins and his facilities chief appealed to parents Wednesday to be patient as the district works through chronic air conditioning problems — and to advocate for more state funding.

    In a news conference that was equal parts apology and explanation, Eakins said the air systems are working at the majority of Hillsborough's 230 schools, with between 15 and 20 considered "high priority" at any one time....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins says air conditioning problems at multiple schools are a "major concern" for the district. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times]
  3. Hot schools, heavy traffic and businesses caught in the middle


    Much of this is normal for the beginning of the school year, there's just a lot more of it -- and public places for people to vent.

    Teachers and parents are complaining openly about problems with the air conditioners.

    And, in suburbs including Westchase and FishHawk Ranch, traffic is piling up as 7,000 students adjust to live without seats on the school bus.

    Some parents are using local businesses as drop-off and pick-up points -- and the businesses are not liking it....

    Students get ready to cross FishHawk Boulevard to get to Newsome High School on the first day of school. McDonald's, a popular drop-off site, is behind them.
  4. Sunshine notice


    Now that the Hillsborough County School Board has several committees, we'll give readers a heads-up when they schedule their meetings, which are open to the public.

    A curriculum, or "teaching and learning" committee meets this Wednesday, Aug. 16, from 1 to 2 p.m. in room 223 of the district's downtown headquarters....

  5. Hillsborough schools open with just under 200,000 students


    Student attendance for the first day in Hillsborough County was 196,822, a slight dip from last year's opening day count of  197,064.

    Those numbers cover all students in preschool through 12th grade, including charter schools.

    With the year beginning so early, district officials don't expect an accurate count just yet.

    "It is not unexpected that our numbers are relatively flat with school starting on a Thursday," said Superintendent Jeff Eakins. "We will continue to monitor the enrollment numbers on Monday. We are a growing county and typically between the first and 5th day, we have an increase of about 10,000 students."...

    The Yukon magnet ramp shortly before 5 p.m. Parents were told, via text, to expect delays this week and next, as students and staff learn their routines.
  6. About those messages from the school bus people


    It happens every year.

    Kids get home late on the first day of school. Parents panic. They call the Hillsborough County School District. They can't get anyone on the phone. They complain to their school board members. The school board members berate the transportation managers. Everyone promises to do better. And then the following year, it happens again.

    What's the solution?

    District officials are trying to pre-empt those calls this year with a series of robo-calls and texts to parents, warning them that bus riders might arrive late on Thursday and one or two days after that....

  7. First-day love at Potter Elementary


    As 200,000 Hillsborough children return to school on Thursday, an enthusiastic group of community leaders will be on hand to give some an extra dose of support.

    Potter Elementary, at 3224 E Cayuga Street, will get a clap-in.

    Clap-in events are organized around the nation, usually in schools where it is felt that students can benefit from demonstrations of public encouragement. They are often festive and uplifting events with the goal of getting students started with the most positive mindset possible. Children are fetted with music, high-fives, fist bumps and cheers. ...

    Invitations to Thursday's Potter Elementary Clap-In have circulated in recent weeks on social media. The goal is to start the year off on an encouraging note at the long-struggling school. The Clap-In starts at 7:15 a.m.
  8. Today: Hundreds of school buses hit area roads as Hillsborough, Pinellas practice for the real thing


    It's the annual ritual that signals summer vacation is pretty much over.

    More than 1,000 school buses will be on Tampa Bay area roads Wednesday morning and afternoon in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties even though public school classes do not begin until Thursday.

    At last count, Hillsborough has 973 buses on the road, not including spares, and Pinellas 450.

    BACK TO SCHOOL 2017: A Times special report...

    Hundreds of school buses will be roaring to life Wednesday as drivers run practice routes in preparation for the start of classes in the area's two largest school districts, Hillsborough and Pinellas. The first day of school is Thursday in those two counties and Monday in Pasco and Hernando counties. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
  9. Five signs that it's a new year in the Hillsborough schools


    Here is some of what we are looking out for as Hillsborough students return to school on Aug. 10.

    Easier library access: The district has teamed up with the Hillsborough public library system for an initiative called HAAL that makes it easier, using just the student number (otherwise known as the lunch number) to access books, ebooks, videos and other materials. With 37 schools on the state's lowest-300 reading levels list, the district is doing what it can to promote reading and this could be part of that equation....

    This photo, from the SLAM website, shows the popular sports-themed charter school in Miami. A new one is opening this month in Citrus Park. District schools such as Smith Middle are scrambling to compete.
  10. Hillsborough wants more magnet schools, despite their cost


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins looked at his network of magnet programs, including their $8.7 million busing cost, and came to this conclusion: Let's do more of it.

    Far from wanting to phase out magnets as the cash-strapped district labors to save money, he wants to see more specialty programs in the inner-city schools and a new generation in the far-flung suburbs....

    Tuba player Chancellor Jackson, 15, of Blake High School, performs in Tampa's Gasparilla parade in January.The Hillsborough County School District spent $655,092 last year to bus 411 magnet students each day to Blake, where the arts magnet includes band. The district's total magnet busing bill was $8.7 million. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
  11. Next to go: IEP assistants


    Another bone to pick as Hillsborough County teachers return to school in the midst of union bargaining: Special education teachers are losing their IEP assistants.

    Individualized Education Programs are those voluminous documents that govern special education. Prepared along with lengthy meetings between parents and school staff (sometimes lawyers too), they serve as road maps to make sure the schools are meeting the children's needs....

  12. Another charter school competes in Hillsborough, with artificial turf, plenty of computers and a waiting list


    APOLLO BEACH — Waterset Charter School is not squeezed inside a shopping center or shoe-horned onto an odd lot. It has its own street, Knowledge Lane, at the end of a main road through the upscale Waterset suburb.

    It is by all rights the community school. "We are so excited that this school is here," SouthShore Chamber of Commerce President Deb Adams told 47 teachers on Wednesday. "This is awesome. Awesome. Awesome."...

    Waterset Charter School in Apollo Beach will open on Aug. 10. [Photo courtesy of Waterset Charter]
  13. The real deal on classroom supplies


    A lot has been said lately at School Board meetings and over social media about teacher supply budgets - so much that Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins wants to set the record straight.

    To that end, he sent over this memo that went out to school leaders in May....

    Teaching Tools is a nonprofit "store" that gives supplies to teachers who work at low-income schools.
  14. Hillsborough school budget passes first test despite teacher and parent concerns


    TAMPA — Jodi Pelletier, like a lot of teachers, is eager to return to school, but worried about money for supplies.

    "I was told that the amount for my classroom is $50," the 12-year employee, told the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday.

    Virginia Goff is worried about her children, who will have to walk to school now that the district is phasing out transportation within two miles of schools....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said Tuesday that he and his staff have worked hard over the past two years to try to bring spending under control. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
  15. Tonight: Area school districts unveil their budgets and tax rates for 2017-18


    The area's three largest school districts, each with its own set of fiscal issues, will give the public a first look at their 2017-18 budgets tonight in public hearings around Tampa Bay.

    The Hillsborough County School Board will take a preliminary vote on a nearly $3 billion budget and a proposed property tax rate of $6.60 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value — down from last year's rate of $6.91....

    Photo illustration. []