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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Elia, new state schools chancellor, did time on the firing line

MaryEllen Elia speaks during a news conference after

MaryEllen Elia speaks during a news conference after the Board of Regents elected her as the new state education commissioner on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

One of the first facts New Yorkers learned last week about their new state schools chancellor was that a Florida school board fired her only five months ago as superintendent.

But as explanations and supportive statements streamed in, it became easier to see how MaryEllen Elia, 66, who has roots in western New York, got past that episode and prevailed in the Board of Regents' selection of ex-schools chancellor John King's successor.

Elia ran the Hillsborough County district, in the Tampa area, for 10 years, and was honored as state superintendent of the year. The board voted 4-3 to let her go following a fight led by a member who criticized her as high-handed. Elia had vocal supporters who condemned the dismissal.

Whatever the merits, her former district bought out the last two years of Elia's contract for an estimated $1.1 million, including her reported $288,000 salary, bonuses, pension pay-ins and health plan. Officials in Florida, quoted in media reports, noted that the board did not try to fire her "for cause." Since she didn't choose to quit, she didn't sacrifice the agreed income.

When she starts July 6 as $250,000-a-year schools chancellor and president of the University of the State of New York, Elia will fill a hot seat of a different kind.

Teachers, bureaucrats and parents are slogging through highly charged evaluation, testing, charter and funding issues.

In one Web posting, Diane Ravitch, a well-known critic of today's top-down school "reform" trends, cited growth of the opt-out movement and asked if Elia will "raise the stakes" on testing.

If so, Ravitch warned, "don't be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year."

Aware of what lies ahead, the Regents might have deemed Elia's experience as a public lightning rod a practical plus.

BIPARTISAN KING: The nonprofit Lugar Center and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy rated how often members of Congress work across party lines.

In a study that included cross-party sponsorships of bills, among other measures, the researchers rated four House Republicans from New York among the top five in a "bipartisan index" for the 113th Congress, which ended in January.

Veteran Rep. Peter King of Seaford ranked second out of 422 nationwide with Rockville Centre native Chris Gibson, of Kinderhook, first. Ex-Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island was third, and Richard Hanna of Oneida County was fifth.

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