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Former Hillsborough schools chief Elia to become education commissioner in New York

MaryEllen Elia, fired four months ago as superintendent of the Hillsborough County public Schools, on Tuesday was offered the top education job in the state of New York. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
MaryEllen Elia, fired four months ago as superintendent of the Hillsborough County public Schools, on Tuesday was offered the top education job in the state of New York. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published May 27, 2015

TAMPA — MaryEllen Elia, fired four months ago as superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, was named New York's state education commissioner on Tuesday.

Elia, 66, will replace John B. King Jr., who left in December to take a job at the U.S. Department of Education.

She will be paid $250,000 a year.

The vote in Albany was unanimous, and vice chancellor Anthony Bottar said Elia impressed the search committee with her candor and accomplishments.

The Board of Regents, which controls New York's public schools, colleges and universities, then endorsed the committee's recommendation.

"I am thrilled to be selected," said Elia, who is expected to start her new job around July 6.

"I think we have a lot of work to do. But it is great work and it will support teachers and staff across the state."

As New York's first female commissioner, Elia will control a bureaucracy within the state's education system roughly one-tenth the size of the Hillsborough school district, which she ran for 10 years.

But the department she will lead sets policy for nearly 700 school districts, including New York City. It also oversees public colleges, libraries, museums and broadcasting stations, and provides licenses for 52 professions.

In addition, Elia will be president of University of the State of New York, one of the largest educational systems in the world.

"I am very happy for MaryEllen," said Jeff Eakins, who stepped in when Elia left Hills­borough in March and will become the new superintendent on July 1. "I am sure she will do great things as the commissioner of education for New York."

As with the Hillsborough job, the New York position is not without political perils.

King, Elia's predecessor, came in with strong credentials as a leader in the teacher-reform movement. He embraced the Common Core educational movement, as Elia did.

But his critics, including teachers' unions, said he was too enamored with tests and did not communicate the new systems effectively. Parents and teachers turned against him as Common Core was rolled out.

In the end, union leaders said they were happy to see him leave.

Elia, by contrast, worked closely with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. To calm fears about Common Core, she crisscrossed the district to answer parent questions.

"I think that was extremely helpful," she told reporters in New York who quizzed her after the regents' meeting. "More communication is key."

Elia, who was educated in Buffalo, N.Y., and taught social studies there at the beginning of her career, spent nearly 30 years in Hillsborough.

She oversaw the creation of dozens of magnet schools, became known for her extensive use of data, and cut costs in the recession to avoid laying off teachers.

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Working with the union, she entered into a $200 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp teacher evaluations a full year ahead of the rest of the state. Empowering Effective Teachers, now entering its sixth year, propelled her to national stature.

But along the way Elia lost the support of two, then three of the seven elected School Board members.. As board members turned against each other, tensions escalated and there were allegations of arrogance and insubordination on Elia's part.

After the November elections, when Sally Harris defeated Michelle Shimberg, Elia's opponents had the four votes they needed to dismiss her.

Even her critics on the board congratulated her on Tuesday. Susan Valdes and April Griffin said, "I wish her well."

Asked about the firing, Elia told reporters in New York that most superintendents last three to four years, and they might want to ask how she survived the past six.

She noted that the vote was 4-3, and the board that hired her was not the one that dismissed her. Then, she said, "I'm moving forward now."

The landscape Elia faces in New York contains many of the same issues that have raised temperatures in Florida — including an antitesting movement and resentment from teachers over more stringent evaluations.

Elia defended her position Tuesday on Common Core, saying the world economy is changing and students need to be prepared to compete.

At the same time, she said, "there needs to be feedback from people on the ground."

So far, she has received mostly accolades.

David Bloomfield, professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, who accused Elia's predecessor of "fetishizing" tests, said he believes Elia will be a big improvement.

"She is a deeply committed public educator with decades of experience in district administration who will not get caught up in ideological battles," he said.

"I expect her to bring strong operational leadership to a state Education Department that has for too long been obsessed with testing, but short on district oversight and equity."

Statements of support came from the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association.

"New York will be lucky to have MaryEllen," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida organization. "We certainly have been in Florida. It's been an uphill battle here, a testing ground for unproven educational reforms that are sucking the joy out of the classroom and scapegoating our educators.

"But even in the face of all that, MaryEllen was able to bring people together and work with us to move a positive, proactive agenda in Hillsborough and across the state."

In her remarks, during and after the regents' meeting, Elia praised teachers repeatedly and vowed to work with them even as she insists on high standards and accountability.

"Everything that happens to a student happens in a classroom because of a teacher," she said.

Staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.