MaryEllen Elia, former Florida superintendent, is state’s next education chief

Updated, 4:10 p.m. — MaryEllen Elia, a longtime educator and former school superintendent in Hillsborough County, Florida, has been chosen to lead New York’s education department.

The Board of Regents unanimously approved Elia’s appointment on Tuesday, concluding a period of uncertainty for the state education department, which has been without a leader for five months. Elia previously led the school system in Hillsborough County, one of the nation’s 10 biggest districts, where she named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board in January — a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Still, Elia will face a department in transition when she starts on July 6. She won’t have the extra millions of federal money that the state had been spending since 2010, when New York was awarded $700 million in Race to the Top grants. The policy changes that New York officials pushed over the next four years have boosted learning standards but also given rise to a growing movement of parents opposed to state testing and left school districts wary of fresh changes coming to teacher evaluations.

“I am very excited about working as a team with all of you,” Elia told the Regents after the vote. “I think we have a lot of great work to do, but it’s good work, and we’ll support the teachers, and the principals, and the staffs across the state.”

The January vote to oust Elia was controversial. Hillsborough school board members said that they were frustrated with principal complaints, problems with special-education services, and her leadership style, which they described as opaque and intimidating. Business leaders reportedly thought otherwise.

“What you have is a level of concern about what has been a very decisive style,” Elia told the Tampa Bay Business Journal in January. “When you are running an organization that large and so many depend in you, you have to make decisions and sometimes they are questioned. By law, the superintendent is the CEO of the district and that’s what I did.”

Under Elia’s leadership, Hillsborough County won more than $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement a new evaluation system before the rest of the state. In their grant application, school officials said they expected to fire at least 5 percent of the district’s tenured teachers annually for poor performance, according to a 2010 article by the Tampa Bay Times — something advocates who oppose rating teachers based on student test scores quickly seized on.

“Call Regents NOW – Elia CANNOT B NYS Ed Commish,” read a Twitter post Tuesday afternoon by the group New York State Allies for Public Education, which encouraged parents to boycott this year’s state exams. Meanwhile, High Achievement New York, the coalition of groups that advocates for the Common Core standards, called her an “inspired choice.”

Elia also made made headlines for her collaborative relationship with the local teachers union. Carol Kurdell, who has been a Hillsborough County school board member since 1992 (and who did not vote to terminate Elia’s contract), said Tuesday that it was very important to Elia to have support from principals and teachers, especially as the district implemented the new evaluation system.

“That’s not to say it happened without bumps and disagreements, but we have a new system in place that’s working,” Kurdell said. “It wasn’t about having my way or the highway.”

Before spending a decade leading the Hillsborough County schools, Elia was a teacher in New York state. She earned master’s degrees from the University of Buffalo and the State University of New York at Buffalo and taught for nearly two decades in New York and Florida. She is also a magnet-schools expert and was president of Magnet Schools of America.

Elia’s New York roots, and her teaching experience, won over the state teachers union, which released a statement of support even before state officials made an announcement.

“We are encouraged that Commissioner Elia is an educator with decades of experience as both a teacher in New York’s public schools and a superintendent in public education, and that she has strong academic credentials from our State University system,” President Karen Magee said.

New York’s Board of Regents formally launched the hiring process in early February, a little over a month after John King resigned after three-and-a-half years as state education commissioner. King’s tenure was marked by controversy around the how quickly the state moved to make significant changes to its teacher evaluations and its standardized tests. (Sources say Christopher Koch, Illinois’s longtime superintendent, and Dan White, a superintendent for a Western New York region that serves suburban districts, were also finalists.)

Since King’s resignation, the state’s education policy debates have only become more heated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has focused his attention on education issues, passing a controversial new evaluation law that included an overhaul of teacher evaluations and dozens of other policy changes. Last October, he vowed to dismantle what he called the state’s public-education “monopoly,” infuriating teachers unions and local districts.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the 17 members of the Board of Regents — which oversees the state education department — were elected in the last 14 months. The new members are vocal critics of the policy changes prompted by Race to the Top.