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Colleen Wright, Times Staff Writer

Colleen Wright

Colleen Wright covers Pinellas County Schools since joining the Times in 2015. Florida born and bred, she was raised in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida.

Phone: (727) 893-8643

E-mail: cwright@tampabay.com

Twitter: @Colleen_Wright

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  1. Encounters: Trial by storm for a rookie principal

    K12

    DUNEDIN — When he nodded off to sleep, the hallway lights outside Michael Vasallo's office were on, so the sudden darkness woke him.

    The glow of his desk phone dimmed.

    Surely the generator would kick in. The 1,300 evacuees who came to the special needs, pet-friendly shelter at Dunedin Highland Middle depended on it.

    Vasallo lay still on the air mattress in his office, waiting....

    Michael Vasallo, the new principal at Dunedin Highland Middle School, stands in his office, where he slept for one hour on an air mattress before Hurricane Irma knocked out the power and the backup generator failed. The school was being used as a shelter that weekend for evacuees with special needs and pets. [COLEEN WRIGHT   |   Times]
  2. Pinellas announces Hurricane Irma make-up day

    Blog

    The Pinellas County school district has announced how it will make up one of the seven school days missed by Hurricane Irma.

    The first make-up day will be Monday, Oct. 16. The date is marked on the 2017-18 school district calendar as a non-student day that could be used as a hurricane day.

    Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Monday that she will waive two days from the state requirement that districts hold 180 days of classes....

    Residents make their way into Joseph L. Carwise Middle School to shelter ahead of Hurricane Irma Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 in Palm Harbor. The storm is forecasted to affect the Tampa Bay area overnight with winds subsiding Monday.
  3. Pinellas votes 7-0 to help sue Legislature over new law favoring charter schools

    K12

    LARGO — They said they had no choice but to do it. They said they would rather reach a compromise.

    But Pinellas County school officials nevertheless moved ahead Tuesday with their long-discussed plans to join a lawsuit challenging a controversial education bill that, critics say, unfairly favors charter schools.

    The School Board voted unanimously to join the suit and contribute $25,000 to the fight, becoming the 12th Florida school district — and the only one in the Tampa Bay area — to do so. ...

    Gov. Rick Scott, right, kicks off the 2017 legislative session on March 7 in Tallahassee. Scott later signed a massive education bill that is being challenged by several school districts. On Tuesday, Pinellas became one of them. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  4. Pinellas votes today on whether to join lawsuit against controversial education bill

    K12

    The Pinellas County School Board will vote this afternoon on whether to join at least 11 other school districts in a lawsuit against the Florida Legislature over a controversial, charter-friendly bill.

    After weeks of deliberation, Pinellas seems ready to vote in favor of joining the lawsuit. ...

    Gov. Rick Scott appeared in Orlando in June to sign HB 7069, a wide-ranging education bill that included a significant expansion of charter schools. Months later, many Florida school districts are lining up to challenge the law. One of them might be Pinellas County, which votes today on whether to join the fight. [Times files]
  5. After Irma, USDA grants free school meals for Tampa Bay area students

    K12

    Students across Florida returned to school Monday, still reeling from power outages and food shortages caused by Hurricane Irma.

    To help families still in a bind, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that students in 48 school districts across the state, including those in the Tampa Bay area, will receive free breakfast and lunch until Oct. 20. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam also has requested flexibility for school districts that may not be able to meet national nutritional requirements because of shortages and delayed deliveries....

    From left, St. Petersburg High School cafeteria workers Barbara Watts, Mychelle Walker and Taylor Fowler work Monday to prepare lunches for the following day. The federal government will pay to offer all students in 48 Florida counties free school meals until Oct. 20 in the wake of Hurricane Irma. But because of logistical problems caused by the storm, Pinellas and other districts have had to tweak and improvise their menus. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  6. Here's what you should know about Pinellas' board workshop, meeting and budget hearing

    Blog

    All eyes will be on the Pinellas County School Board as it will hold a vote to join 11 other school districts in a lawsuit against the Florida Legislature over a controversial, charter-friendly bill.

    Aside from that vote at the 3:30 p.m. board meeting, the board will have a packed day Tuesday with an 11 a.m. workshop and second public hearing on the budget and tax rate at 5:01 p.m. Here's what you should keep an eye on.

    - The School Board is expected to approve a $1.5 billion budget and revised tax rate. Board members will discuss levying a proposed rate of $7.01 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, which is lower than last year's rate of $7.32....

    The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday will have a workshop, board meeting and second public hearing on the 2017-18 budget and tax rate.
  7. Four Pinellas schools still without full power

    Blog

    All Pinellas County public schools are expected to open Monday following seven school days off due to Hurricane Irma.

    But four schools either have no power or do not have power fully restored as of 4 p.m. Friday.

    District spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said Lakeview Fundamental in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Technical College - Clearwater are both still without power. Bear Creek Elementary and 74th Street Elementary, both in St. Petersburg, have power partially restored. Parra did not specify what that meant for both schools....

    Ohadji Thornton does the Cha Cha Slide with his daughter O'Meera Thornton to help pass the time at John Hopkins Middle School on Sunday, September 10, 2017 in St. Petersburg. The school filled classrooms and hallways with people evacuating before Hurricane Irma makes landfall. The shelter welcomes people from the area with pets and those with special needs.
  8. Police: Melrose Elementary burglarized over Hurricane Irma break

    Blog

    Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg has been burglarized, police discovered overnight Thursday.

    St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said a school staff member discovered the break-in, which police say occurred sometime over the period the school was closed due to Hurricane Irma. She said items were strewn about, but investigators will check back with school administrators when school resumes next week to determine which items are missing....

    Principal Nikita Reed poses in front of Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. The school had been burglarized sometime over the past week since school was canceled due to Hurricane Irma, and St. Petersburg Police were notified of the Burglary early Thursday morning. It is unclear what items were taken.
  9. Pinellas to vote Tuesday on whether to join lawsuit against controversial education bill

    Blog

    Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego is urging the School Board to join 11 other Florida districts in challenging a controversial law that steers more control and public dollars to charter schools.

    Board members are expected to vote on his recommendation at their regular meeting Tuesday.

    The board has discussed the possibility of joining a lawsuit since July, when Broward County school officials led the way by vowing to sue the Legislature over the law. Many board members appear to favor moving ahead with the challenge....

    The Pinellas County School Board will vote Tuesday on whether to join the multi-district lawsuit against HB7069, a controversial education bill that steers more public dollars toward charter schools.
  10. With schools closed for days, the scramble is on to keep kids occupied

    K12

    TAMPA — Sweaty from running with neighborhood pals, 7-year-old Aiden Rodriguez paused beneath the shaded shelter at the Villa Rosa community park before heading back for more.

    Hurricane Irma had kept them indoors for days, but now Aiden and his friends could spread out. They had been at play for four hours, with three moms keeping an eye on their children and those of other parents....

    Seven-year-olds Daniella Terrone, Noah Maddux and Aiden Rodriguez play on the swings Wednesday in a park in the north Hillsborough community of Villa Rosa. Like other families across the area, they and their parents have been searching for ways to pass the time after Hurricane Irma forced schools to close last week. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK  |  Times]
  11. Did local Indian mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma's worst? Some say yes

    Blog

    The Tampa Bay area hasn’t suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since 1929. Did American Indians who roamed the land centuries ago protect Pinellas with a blessing?

    Depends on who you ask, says Rui Farias, who knows a thing or two about local history. When he’s not teaching a Florida history class at St. Petersburg High, he works as executive director of the Saint Petersburg Museum of History near the Pier....

    A view of the site of a 23-foot mound at Sacred Lands in St. Petersburg's Jungle Prada neighborhood. The Anderson family has owned the property since the 1940s and lived in a private residence, 13-feet above sea level behind the mound, since 1953. On certain days, the park opens for public tours.
  12. After Irma, it was back to the beaches for peace of mind, a lost cat and some ice cream

    Hurricanes

    Candy Mortenson's Hyundai Santa Fe sat idle on the shoulder of the Pinellas Bayway.

    She had been there for 30 minutes, and soon she could maybe put her mind at ease. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office was set to open access to the barrier islands at 4 p.m.

    While she was packing up to evacuate her own home and her mother's home ahead of Hurricane Irma, only four out of her five cats made it to the car. Bobbi, who Mortenson rescued from a dumpster, had bolted out of her carrier, never to be seen before the family left for a hotel on higher ground in St. Petersburg....

    Among the scores of people lined up Monday to return to the Pinellas beaches after Hurricane Irma were, from left: Riley Shea, 10, Olivia Shea, 11, Harper Clapp, 11, and dad Bryan Clapp, 42 on the Pinellas Bayway bridge. Having just survived their first Florida hurricane, they had been waiting to get back to their home on the beach for three hours. {Colleen Wright | Times]
  13. Kriseman urges public to stay off the roads, says sewer system 'held up really well'

    Hurricanes

    ST. PETERSBURG — The city was mostly spared from the wrath of Hurricane Irma, but the danger isn't over yet.

    Mayor Rick Kriseman made that point clear during a news conference Monday at the city's Water Resource department. He said the city is not aware of any lives lost due to the storm, but worried some lives could be claimed by those who come into contact with downed power lines....

    St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, center, talks to the media Monday about the effects of Hurricane Irma on the city. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
  14. Among friends in St. Petersburg High shelter in advance of Irma

    Hurricanes

    ST. PETERSBURG — The shelter at St. Petersburg High School feels like home to Carla Gamble.

    With the heads-up from a community policeman, she was the first to arrive Saturday when the school was opened to accommodate a new wave of evacuees from Hurricane Irma. Her neon green wristband was marked with a 1.

    That policeman was there, and as residents trickled in, Gamble, 49, recognized familiar faces: other community police officers, former classmates, co-workers from old jobs and other homeless people from Williams Park, where she had recently been staying....

    Carla Gamble was the first to arrive at St. Petersburg High School when it opened as a shelter Saturday. [COLLEEN WRIGHT | Times]
  15. Waiting and worrying about Irma in Pinellas County shelfters

    Hurricanes

    Thousands of people are taking the threat of harm from Hurricane Irma seriously in Pinellas County.

    About 20,000 people were holed up in 17 shelters in Pinellas County. All but one, Sexton Elementary School on 54th Avenue N., was still taking evacuees when county emergency officials announced around 11:30 a.m. that evacuees had an hour to get to a shelter.

    There were more than 1,700 special needs evacuees taking shelter and about as many pets. Here are some scenes from inside Pinellas County shelters....

    Bob Elston, 88, and wife Mary Ellen Elston, 71, pass time reading the comics Sunday morning at Ross Norton Recreation Complex in Clearwater. About 90 residents of the senior living facility evacuated there Saturday. (Tracey McManus  |  Times)