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Education Commissioner Elia unexpectedly resigns

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

The state’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia  abruptly resigned Monday, taking members of the state Board of Regents by surprise. She says she will take a new job at the end of August at an unnamed national firm.  
 
Elia, who is the first female commissioner in the history of the State Education Department, says she decided now is the right time to leave the post, and has agreed to accept a job with a national firm that works to turn around struggling public schools.
 
“I’m very excited about that opportunity,” Elia said. “It plays to the things that I have most experience in, and the work I want to continue doing.”
 
Elia says the firm deals with policy, and that she will not be doing any lobbying.
 
“I do not believe that children and politics match well,” she said. 
 
Elia says she did not notify the Board of Regents, or its Chancellor Betty Rosa, in advance of her announcement, saying she wanted to tell everyone the news at once. She says she is not leaving because of any disharmony between the commissioner and the board. 
 
In a statement Regents Chancellor Rosa thanked the commissioner for her “ tireless and unwavering service to New York State’s children”.
 
Elia took over as Education Commissioner in 2015, after former education commissioner John King left to work for the Obama Administration.
 
She helped calm the waters after controversy over the implementation of the Common Core learning standards, and what some parents and teachers said was excessive testing in the schools and led to boycotts of the tests.
 
“I would go into meetings with parents and they were so upset they could hardly articulate the things they were upset about,” Elia said. “Teachers felt they had been attacked.”
 
Elia remained committed to standardized testing, though she oversaw a streamlining and shortening of the exams, and encouraged more input from teachers. She also defended the use of computerized exams, even when major software glitches postponed some of the tests for the past two years in a row. 
 
The head of the New York State School Boards Association, Tim Kremer, says he is “not totally surprised” by Elia’s announcement, but was caught short by the timing of the announcement.  
 
“We’re sorry to see her go,” said Kremer.” She’s been a good commissioner.”
 
Kremer also credits Elia with smoothing over heated disputes over the Common Core learning standards, by traveling the state and conducting a “listening tour”, to hear out complaints by parents and teachers. 
 
“She really helped bring down the temperature,” Kremer said. “When she arrived it was a very tumultuous time.”
 
A statement from the state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, was more measured. The union says it wishes Elia well in her new endeavors, but says I hopes the next commissioner works to fix what  NYSUT says is the “broken”  state testing system for children in grades 3-8.
 
Elia, a Buffalo area native, began her career teaching in public schools in Amherst. Before becoming education commissioner in New York, Elia headed the Hillsborough County school district, a large district which includes Tampa, Florida.  She was fired from that job, after clashing with the school board, but her achievements there, including developing better teacher performance reviews, was praised in some quarters.
 
Elia has been critical of Governor Cuomo’s budget allocations for public school aid, saying this past February during a legislative budget hearing that the governor’s proposed funding was short by at least $1 billion dollars. 
 
Elia also in 2017 oversaw a hearing on the conduct of former Buffalo school board member and former candidate for Governor, Carl Paladino, over racially tinged comments Paladino made to a Buffalo newsweekly. Paladino was removed from the school board. 
 
In New York, unlike in many other states, the education commissioner does not work directly for the governor. The commissioner is chosen by the State Board of Regents, and the Regents are chosen by the state legislature. 
 
 No timetable for a replacement for the commissioner or for an interim commissioner has been set. 

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