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Regents name acting state schools chief

Beth Berlin, executive deputy commissioner of the state

Beth Berlin, executive deputy commissioner of the state Education Department, speaks Monday outside the Board of Regents meeting room in Albany with parents and others protesting a stricter state law on required immunizations for children. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Beth Berlin, executive deputy commissioner of the state Education Department, will take over the agency as acting commissioner Sept. 1, at a time when it faces new challenges on issues including high school diploma standards.

Leaders of the state Board of Regents announced Tuesday that Berlin, who has served in the department's top ranks for six years, will stand in after the departure of Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The state schools chief said Monday that she will leave Aug. 31 for a job with an unnamed private national firm.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown described Berlin as “a compassionate, capable and effective leader” in a joint statement about her assignment.

Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the board, added that Berlin has done “herculean” work, not only as executive deputy but also in assuming many duties previously performed by administrators who recently left the department for top education posts in other states.

Berlin, 48, served as acting commissioner once before, during the first six months of 2015 after then-Commissioner John B. King Jr. left for the No. 2 job at the U.S. Education Department and before Elia was hired and took office that July. Her annual salary is $199,161; education officials said it will remain that amount when she takes the helm as the agency's interim leader.

Before working in the Education Department, she was executive deputy commissioner of the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. Prior to that, she was commissioner of the Albany County Department of Social Services. She holds a bachelor's degree from Siena College.

Elia, 70, announced her resignation just hours after she and Rosa outlined an ambitious plan for revamping the state’s graduation standards, including its use of state Regents exams in determining students’ eligibility for diplomas. The effort was to be launched in September, with the appointment of a blue-ribbon commission that ultimately would recommend changes in graduation rules.

Supporters of change said the work needs to start as soon as possible, because the issue is complicated and New York’s strict testing rules are viewed by some as barriers to graduation. About 80 percent of New York’s students graduate after four years in high school — a figure that lags behind some nearby states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts.

On Tuesday, state education officials acknowledged that the work on graduation standards might be delayed, though they did not give specific reasons. A debate Monday among members of the policymaking Regents board revealed sharp disagreements over key questions, such as whether Regents exams should be de-emphasized or maintained in their current form.

Emily DeSantis, chief spokeswoman for the Education Department, issued a statement Tuesday that there is “not a firm timeline” for appointing the advisory commission.

“The Regents remain committed to moving forward with its review of what is necessary to earn a diploma in New York State,” DeSantis' statement said. “The draft timeline presented yesterday was just that — draft — and the Board wants to ensure ample time is provided to select members of the Commission and for it to carry out its work.”

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