State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, the former Sweet Home teacher who would go on to become New York’s top educator four years ago during a turbulent time for public schools, dropped a big surprise Monday when she announced she will resign in August.
Elia, 70, made the announcement at a Board of Regents meeting in Albany, after submitting her letter of resignation. Her last day will be Aug. 31.
“Four years,” she told reporters during a press conference after the meeting. “That actually is a pretty long time for commissioners in states, and I think there’s been quite a few commissioners here in New York who have had shorter tenures than that.”
Elia confirmed she is leaving to pursue another professional opportunity with a national firm. She would not name the firm but said it has a focus on supporting districts in their efforts to turn around schools.
Elia — who earned $252,199 in 2018, according to See Through NY — said she has been in conversations since first being approached by the firm six to eight months ago.
After Elia made the announcement, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said the news “obviously caught us all off guard,” according to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news site.
“We thank Commissioner Elia for her tireless and unwavering service to New York State’s children,” Rosa said in a statement. “Commissioner Elia has been steadfast in her commitment to placing the interests of students first. We wish Commissioner Elia the best in her future endeavors.”
Born in Rochester, Elia grew up in Lewiston and attended Daemen College, the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State before working for 16 years as an educator in the Sweet Home Central School District.
When her husband got a job in Florida, the family moved to Hillsborough County, where Elia served in a number of roles before rising to the position of superintendent in the district of 206,000 students.
Elia returned to her roots in 2015 when the state Board of Regents unanimously elected her to lead the state Education Department, succeeding former John B. King, who left to head the U.S. Education Department.
She stepped in during a turbulent time.
Controversy swirled around the state’s rollout of the tougher Common Core Learning Standards. The opt-out movement had picked up steam as students boycotted the state’s standardized tests in math and English language arts. Teachers, meanwhile, were angry over performance evaluations tied to student test results.
“When I came into the state ... there was no question there was stresses in the system in New York,” Elia said. “We had people concerned about the standards. We had people concerned about teacher evaluation. We had issues relating to the assessments.”
One of the first things Elia did was travel across the state to gather public perception on what needed to be done at the state Education Department.
As a result, changes were made to the standardized tests, including shortening them from three days to two. The Board of Regents imposed a moratorium on the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, prior to the State Legislature ultimately ending the mandate altogether.
After a year of collecting public input, Elia and the Board of Regents ushered in a new set of standards.
In Buffalo, her fingerprints are all over public education. Elia was the one to recommend Kriner Cash for the job of superintendent in 2015 and in 2017 removed Carl Paladino from the School Board after she presided over a five-day hearing in Albany.
“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is working to calm the waters here and move the agenda for education forward,” Elia said of the controversies across the state. “I think for a period of time we were in stalemate, not really able to focus on what we needed to do to support students and I think that by calming the waters, by understanding the importance of teacher voice in virtually everything we do, I think that is one of the things I’m most proud of.”
“She helped heal wounds resulting from the hurried implementation of the state’s annual teacher and principal performance review process (APPR) and Common Core learning standards,” said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.
While the association had disagreements with the commissioner over local control, the dialog was always candid and respectful and Elia managed to navigate a demanding job in an increasingly political climate, Kremer said.
“Elia will leave behind a legacy of accomplishment,” Kremer said in a statement. “She started a constructive dialog around divisive issues such as APPR, Common Core and opt outs. She conducted a listening tour, traveling around the state seeking feedback from stakeholders.”
New York State United Teachers, the state education union, also released a statement wishing Elia well.
“We look forward to working closely with the next commissioner to fix the broken state testing system for children in grades 3-8 and on our mission to cultivate the next generation of highly qualified, dedicated educators,” the statement from NYSUT read. “Selecting a new commissioner with a deep background in public school classrooms will go a long way toward achieving these critical goals.”