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Former Western New Yorker MaryEllen Elia elected as state education chief

ALBANY – The State Board of Regents on Tuesday afternoon unanimously voted to appoint a well-regarded Florida schools leader with Lewiston roots to become New York’s next education commissioner.

MaryEllen Elia, 66, will become the first woman and first with Buffalo Niagara roots to ever take the post.

Elia was recommended by the board’s search committee and the full body approved the appointment after a lengthy meeting. The 17 Regents were given notice over the holiday weekend to report to Albany on Tuesday for a special meeting to interview Elia and then vote on her appointment.

Elia, who will be paid $250,000, will replace John B. King Jr., who left last year to take a job at the U.S. Department of Education.

Elia, who taught at Sweet Home High School and married into a well-known Niagara Falls family, brings with her decades of experience in New York and Florida, most recently as superintendent of the Hillsborough County school system for more than a decade. The racially and socioeconomically diverse district includes urban Tampa, its surrounding suburbs and rural areas that serve large numbers of migrant children.

Her dismissal from the post earlier this year stirred debate both in Florida and across the country, with her critics saying she was intimidating and micro-managing, while supporters argued she became the victim of school board politics.

The board’s narrow 4-3 vote in January to dismiss her came after she was named a finalist for national superintendent of the year, and prompted Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews to call her termination “senseless and catastrophic” under a headline that read “Blunder of the year?”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also came to her defense.

Elia’s tenure as Hillsborough superintendent surpassed that of most other leaders of large school districts, which the Council of Great City Schools estimates at about three years.

Her superintendency came at a time when Florida was leading the country in areas such as career education, data collection and early childhood programs – including a heavy focus on reading proficiency in the early grades.

Although Florida’s education system historically has been considered inferior to those in the Northeast, the Sunshine State has made significant gains in the past decade. During that time, Florida students’ performance has outpaced those in New York in some areas of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only measure of evaluating achievement across state lines.

Prior to becoming superintendent, Elia served in a number of roles, from teacher to district level administrator responsible for overseeing school facilities.

Elia attended Daemen College, the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State before working in Sweet Home for 16 years as a high school social studies teacher.

News that the state Board of Regents would consider Elia’s appointment Tuesday afternoon drew cautious approval from the statewide teachers union, New York State United Teachers.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that she’s an educator with a background teaching in New York State,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, which had been highly critical of King’s oversight of the implementation of new learning standards in the state and new teacher evaluations. “She has strong academic credentials from SUNY. She appears to want to listen to the concerns of those in the trenches and build consensus.”

Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony Day said the district is “proud that she had her roots at Sweet Home.”

“When she was a social studies teacher here, she was known as a really dynamic teacher that had great relationships with kids and was really a mentor for others in the department,” said Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony Day.

In 1986, Elia moved to Hillsborough County, where as a reading specialist she oversaw programs that aimed to identify and provide support to at-risk students at Plant High School.

She then went on to serve in a variety of roles at the district level. That included overseeing and implementing reading programs for middle and high school students, as well as drop-out prevention. Elia also worked on creating magnet schools, which typically offer special programs to entice more affluent families to schools in poorer communities.

She then worked in various roles overseeing non-traditional programs, secondary schools and facilities, before becoming superintendent in 2005, taking charge of the country’s eighth-largest school system with 206,000 students and a $2.9 billion budget. She was the first woman to serve in the position.

During her time as superintendent, she developed rigorous schools that rivaled the best in the country. She became known as a personable and intelligent leader with a sharp sense of humor who other superintendents turned to for advice.

Under her leadership the district’s graduation rate, based on federal calculations, increased from 64 percent to 74 percent. She also improved participation and performance of minority students in advanced courses. She expanded career pathways programs, including a number in high-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Elia also has a reputation as a no-nonsense and direct leader, who has no qualms about expressing her opinions. During the last Hillsborough school board election, she placed a campaign sign on her front lawn promoting the opponent of one of her main critics on the elected body.

She describes herself as a “fiscal conservative” who cut district-level positions to balance school budgets during the recent real estate crisis and subsequent recession, which ravaged most Florida school districts that rely almost exclusively on property taxes. That helped avoid teacher layoffs during a taxing time for Florida schools.

Working with the teachers union, she also devised a merit pay system to reward teachers for strong performance.

Toward the end of her tenure, however, she faced criticism from school board members and some segments of the community, who said she cultivated a workplace of fear and did not pay enough attention to issues that affect minority children, including the disproportionate number of black students receiving suspensions.

Parents of special needs students launched a social media campaign against her, dubbing her “EVILia.”

One school board member criticized the accidental deaths of three students, saying that alone was grounds for her dismissal. In two of those cases, the students died after school staffers did not immediately call 911 when the children experienced medical problems. The third drowned in a nearby pond after walking away from gym class.

The board voted to terminate her contract, giving her a buyout package that amounted to about $1 million.

Elia was a top prospect for other jobs even before the board’s decision to oust her from the district. Several years ago, she was rumored to be a prospect for the job leading Florida’s state education system. She was also tapped to serve on the transition team for the reform-oriented Gov. Rick Scott.

Following her departure, Elia’s name surfaced as a potential candidate for other positions. Several people gave her name to members of the Buffalo Board of Education as a possible recruit for superintendent of the city school district.