New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced Monday that she is resigning at the end of August, taking members of the state Board of Regents by surprise.
Over the last year, Elia has been a key figure in the scrutiny of the Rochester school district. She was the person who appointed Jaime Aquino as the district's Distinguished Educator, and she had harsh criticism about the improvement plan the district wrote in response to Aquino's stinging assessment.
Elia continued to express her concerns about the district, but she stopped short of joining Mayor Lovely Warren and others in calling for the elimination of the school board.
In announcing her resignation on Monday, Elia said she has accepted a job with a national firm that works to turn around struggling public schools. Elia said the firm deals with policy, and she will not be doing any lobbying.
Elia said she did not notify the Board of Regents or 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.
Elia, who is the first female commissioner in the history of the State Education Department, succeeded John King, who left to work for the Obama administration.
Her supporters say 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.
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.
Tim Kremer, the head of the New York State School Boards Association, said the association is sorry to see Elia leave. "She's been a good commissioner," he said.
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.
And some education reform activists celebrated Elia's departure, calling her a "champion" of standardized testing and Common Core.
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, Florida, school district, a large district that includes Tampa. She was fired from that job after clashing with the school board, but her efforts there, including developing better teacher performance reviews, were praised in some quarters.
Elia has been critical of Governor 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 the Buffalo newsweekly Art Voice. 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 Albany reporter for WXXI News. CITY'S Tim Louis Macaluso contributed to the reporting for this article.