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State education commissioner unexpectedly resigns

State Education Commission MaryEllen Elia speaks to the media on Monday about her decision to resign.
Karen DeWitt/WXXI News
State Education Commission MaryEllen Elia speaks to the media on Monday about her decision to resign.

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia abruptly resigned Monday, taking members of the state Board of Regents by surprise. She said 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, said 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 said the firm deals with policy, and she will not be doing any lobbying.

"I do not believe that children and politics match well," she said.

Elia said she did not notify the Board of Regents or its chancellor, Betty Rosa, in advance of her announcement because she wanted to tell everyone the news at once. She said she is not leaving because of any disharmony.

In a statement, Rosa thanked the commissioner for her "tireless and unwavering service to New York state's children." 

During Elia's tenure, she appointed former Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino to review the Rochester City School  District. There also were discussions about a possible state takeover of the troubled district.

Local leaders thanked Elia for her service and looked to the future.

Elia took over as education commissioner in 2015, after her predecessor, 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, which 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 she 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.

Tim Kremer, the head of the New York State School Boards Association, said he is "not totally surprised" by Elia's announcement, but he was caught short by the timing of the announcement.  

"We're sorry to see her go," Kremer said. "She's been a good commissioner." 

Kremer also credited 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 said it wishes Elia well in her new endeavors, but said it hopes the next commissioner works to fix what NYSUT called 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 that 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, were praised in some quarters. 

Elia has been critical of Gov. Andrew 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.  

In 2017, Elia oversaw a hearing on the conduct of former Buffalo school board member and former candidate for governor, Carl Paladino, over racially tinged comments that 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 or an interim commissioner has been set. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.