Former Tampa Schools Boss MaryEllen Elia Named N.Y. K-12 Chief

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 26, 2015 2 min read
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MaryEllen Elia, the former superintendent of the Hillsborough County school system in Tampa, has become the next commissioner of public schools in New York state.

The New York Board of Regents voted to name Elia as commissioner on May 26. Elia replaces former Commissioner John King, who left his position at the start of the year to become a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. There are approximately 2.7 million students enrolled in New York state public schools. The Buffalo News was the first to report the story. The board’s vote was unanimous, and she will earn a $250,000 annual salary.

Elia, an upstate New York native, had served since 2005 as the Hillsborough County district in Florida until this past January, when she was fired by the Hillsborough school board through a 4-3 vote. Criticism of Elia emerged during the months prior to her dismissal by the Hillsborough board that she created “a workplace culture of fear and bullying” and failed to pay sufficient attention to minorities, especially Hispanics, as Marlene Sokol of the Tampa Bay Times reported. However, Elia’s supporters argued that she had accomplished her contractual goals of overseeing significant academic improvement by the district’s students (there are 206,000 students in the district). She had served as the district’s superintendent since 2005, but had worked there in other roles there since 1986.

The district had garnered a national profile on Elia’s watch for its work on teacher development and compensation. In 2013, my coworker Stephen Sawchuk reported that Hillsborough had received $104 million in grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and used Gates money to support “Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching.” That was the highest such funding from Gates for any one district at the time. Here’s how that funding broke down:

(The Gates Foundation has provided grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over coverage.)

Sawchuk also highlighted how the district’s differentiated-pay scale for teachers compared to those used in other districts. And my coworker Corey Mitchell wrote about her departure and its impact on Gates funding earlier this year.

In 2010, Elia was also the focus of a Newsweek profile that highlighted Hillsborough’s collaboration with the local teachers’ union on issues such as contracts, coaching, and hours. The local union weighed in against Elia’s firing in January, as did Duncan.

That, naturally, leads to questions over whether Elia will be able to replicate those same relationships and results with the New York State United Teachers, which has been battling the state education department and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for years over teacher evaluations, testing, and funding, among other issues. Elia is walking into a political hornet’s nest as NYSUT, which called for a boycott of state standardized tests this year, continues to oppose a wide variety of state K-12 policies. NYSUT did express optimism about Elia’s appointment before it was official, citing her background as a social studies teacher in the 1970s and as someone with “decades of experience.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.