In December 2014, MaryEllen Elia, who led the public schools in Florida’s Hillsborough County, was named state Superintendent of the Year for 2015. The next month, she was fired. On Tuesday, she got a new job — a promotion, actually — as New York State commissioner of education.
The Associated Press reported that Elia, 66, was unanimously chosen by the New York Board of Regents to succeed John King, who left the chancellor’s post last December amid controversy over his education reform program in New York. He is now a senior adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The New York State United Teachers union expressed support for Elia, the AP said.
Last January, the Hillsborough Board of Education voted 4-3 to dismiss her — without cause — with 2 1/2 years left on her contract. Members who voted her out have been on record as criticizing her for board-superintendent tension, her salary and benefits, and constituent complaints about too much high-stakes standardized testing and a lack of services for students with special-needs. She got a buyout worth $1.1 million in salary, benefits and unused vacation and sick time.
Elia, a former teacher in New York and Florida, was well-known in education circles in part because she was superintendent for 10 years in Hillsborough — far longer than the average superintendent — and because her district won $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a teacher evaluation system using student standardized-test scores as a key metric. She also negotiated a merit pay system with the teachers union, supported school choice and the Gates-funded Common Core State Standards (even though Florida wound up pulling out of the Core initiative).
She is close to the Republican political and business establishment in Florida; in fact, testifying in her favor at the board meeting where she was ousted was Kathleen Shanahan, the former chief of staff to former governor Jeb Bush. She also had support in Florida’s education world, including Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, a teachers union, who issued this statement about her new job:
New York will be lucky to have MaryEllen. We certainly have been in Florida. It’s been an uphill battle here, a testing ground for unproven educational reforms that are sucking the joy out of the classroom and scapegoating our educators. But even in the face of all that, MaryEllen was able to bring people together and work with us to move a positive, proactive agenda in Hillsborough and across the state.”
Yet she had strong critics on a range of subjects.
Some said her tough disciplinary policy disproportionately affected black students. Others were upset about salary negotiated years earlier, in which she received a base salary of $289,000 and benefits that brought total compensation to about $400,000, as well as about what critics called a lack of transparency.
Some board members were furious, for example, when they learned that she had failed to notify them immediately that a 7-year-old girl had stopped breathing on a school bus and died later; she said she didn’t know the scope of the tragedy until the family sued the district. Critics also included the parents of special-needs students who complained that she did not address the needs of their children, and employees who said her management style was heavy-handed. Her outspokenness angered some on the board, too; for example, she put on the front lawn of her home a campaign sign for the opponent of one of her board critics.
After being fired, she was considered for other open superintendent jobs but she did not make the short list of candidates in Boston or Palm Beach County, Florida. Carol Burris, an award-winning principal in New York, said this about Elia:
“It is now apparent why the Board of Regents did not reach out to stakeholder groups and inform them that she was a candidate–if her support for merit pay, the Common Core, Gates Foundation grants, the formulaic dismissal of teachers, and school choice were known, certainly there would have been an outcry from New York parents and teachers who have had more than their fill of test-based reforms. The message of 200,000 Opt Outs has not been heard.”
(Correction: Yes, I spelled principal as principle in an earlier version. Now it’s fixed.)