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Regents select former Florida school superintendent as next education commissioner

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

New York State has a new education commissioner. The state board of Regents, after a lengthy closed door session, chose Mary Ellen Elia, a former Western New York school teacher who was most recently the superintendent of a large school district in Florida.

Elia, a Lewiston, New York native who taught in public schools the Buffalo suburb of Amherst early in her career, says she is glad to be “coming home”  after many years away. Elia was both praised and criticized in her most recent post as head of the Hillsborough county public schools in Florida. While she received national recognition for her success in working with the teachers unions to implement new performance reviews and to make it easier to fire bad teachers,  her own school board dismissed her from the superintendents job in January, saying, essentially, that she was too autocratic.  Elia calls that and other criticisms “unfair” and says many in the community disagreed with the board’s decision to fire her.

“The board that put me in wasn’t the same board,” said Elia, who said there were “multiple changes” going on at the time.

“I’m moving forward now, and I’m not really concentrating on the past,” she said.

New York’s teachers and Governor Cuomo have had a contentious relationship over the implementation of new teacher evaluations and what critics say is the excessive use of standardized tests in New York’s schools.

Elia says she’s been too busy to hear much of what the governor’s been saying, but she says, as a former teacher, she believes classroom educators have been undervalued, and she hopes to change that.

“The approach that I would take would be to support teachers,” said Elia. “I believe that the teachers union will be partners and collaborators with me.”

The new education commissioner says she realizes that teachers unions are much stronger in New York than in Florida.

New York State United Teachers, in a statement, says they are “encouraged” over the selection of Elia, and hope that she will be a “welcome voice,” in what’s become an often bitter debate.

Elia says controversial agreements made in the state budget that require a tight timetable for development of new teacher performance standards may need a second look.

“We need to review all of the work that’s been done, make recommendations for changes that perhaps need to be done legislatively, or through regulations,” Elia said.

Teachers, school administrators and many legislators want to delay the new rules for another year, until 2016. Governor Cuomo says he’s ok with extensions for some schools, as long as most schools meet the fall 2015 deadline.   

Elia says she hopes to talks to some of the parents of the one fifth of students statewide who opted out of the standardized English tests, which were given in April.

The new education commissioner says she knows the transition to the Common Core learning standards, which she supports, is difficult, saying it’s a “seismic shift,” and that in the haste to adopt the new programs, education leaders have not taken the time to make sure the public understands it all.  

Elia was elected by a unanimous vote of the Board of Regents, flowing a lengthy closed door session. She was chosen from an initial list of 50 potential candidates, and will begin her new job on July 6th.

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