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Local education leaders alarmed by turnover in state Education Department

Board of Regents member Roger Tilles, then-New York

Board of Regents member Roger Tilles, then-New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Chancellor Betty Rosa during a Regents meeting in Albany in February.  Credit: Tim Roske

Heavy turnover among top state education officials has alarmed local school leaders, who warn that the ongoing exits could hobble efforts to upgrade testing and graduation standards, affecting thousands of students on Long Island and statewide.

Eight high-ranking administrators have either left the state Education Department or announced their departures since March. They include experienced managers responsible for oversight and improvement of failing public schools, as well as higher education and other key areas.

Resignations most highly publicized came from Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who stepped down Aug. 31 for a job in the private sector, and her successor, interim Commissioner Beth Berlin, who announced Oct. 18 that she would leave Nov. 15. 

"We're rudderless," said Lorna Lewis, a regional expert on instructional management and superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools. "There are some very critical questions to address, and we need a leader."

Lewis is immediate past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, representing more than 800 local administrators across the state.

State and local experts blame the exodus on a convergence of factors — among them, shortages of staff at all levels in the education department. Elia in 2017 referred to her agency as "the most staff-deprived" in the nation. 

Another regional leader, Hank Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools, said he sensed continuing "frustration" at the state agency over the difficulty in filling vacancies. 

In Albany, some representatives of statewide school groups have voiced concern that management of an education agency responsible for colleges, schools, libraries and museums has turned into a revolving door.

"In 30 years dealing with the state Education Department, I've never seen anything like this amount of turnover in high-level positions in this short a time period," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the superintendents' council. 

Officials now in charge of the state's educational system have tried to reassure the public that the transition will be relatively smooth.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, and Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said a replacement for Berlin would be chosen before Nov. 15.

"We will continue to take a more active role in the activities of the department during this time of transition, and the work of the department will continue as usual," Rosa and Brown said in a prepared statement. 

The 17-member Regents board appoints commissioners and sets much of New York's education agenda. 

Staffers within the Education Department responded to the departures by describing some as representing a bright spot of sorts: Professionals in the agency's upper rungs were eagerly recruited by other states, they noted. 

Jhone Ebert, formerly New York's senior deputy commissioner for education policy, assumed a new job April 2 as superintendent of public instruction for Nevada, the equivalent of a state commissioner. Angelica Infante-Green, formerly this state's deputy commissioner for instructional support in preschool through 12th grade, became Rhode Island's education commissioner April 29.

Skeptics pointed out that Regents and their departmental staff will face unusually heavy schedules in the months ahead. Board members have committed to a two-year review and revamping of high-school graduation requirements, and also must deal with controversial issues of student testing and teacher job evaluations.

Moments such as these call for veteran state administrators who can spot potential pitfalls based on past experience, many local school officials said.

Charles Russo, the schools chief in East Moriches, said that experience will be needed to deal with unresolved questions such as whether New York will continue using Regents exams, an academic staple here for more than 150 years.

"I certainly believe that superintendents are concerned about the turnover, because of the organizational history that's walking out the door," said Russo, a past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.    

Other education executives recently lost by the state and their former job titles: John D'Agati, deputy commissioner of Higher Education; Renee Rider, associate commissioner of School Operations and Management Services; Ira Schwartz, associate commissioner Office of Accountability; Lissette Colon-Collins, assistant commissioner for the Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages. 

Several state and local officials, speaking privately, also cited dissension within the Regents board as a likely reason for recent staff departures. 

Disagreements on policy issues are not uncommon. A board discussion, in July, of diploma requirements revealed a wide range of opinions, with some Regents indicating they wanted to retain traditional exams, and others calling for dramatic change. 

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents the Island on the board, told Newsday last week that he felt board members generally showed "a good spirit of cooperation." 

Across the Island, some educators said Elia would be greatly missed, while others welcomed Rosa's expanded role.

"Look, I think they have an extraordinary chance with Betty Rosa's decision to take on leadership and to fill the vacuum created by these vacancies," said William Johnson, the schools chief in Rockville Centre.

EDUCATION DEPARTMENT DEPARTURES

A listing of upper echelon officials in the state Education Department who have left their posts since March or plan to do so.

Left since March:

MaryEllen Elia, commissioner

Jhone Ebert, senior deputy commissioner for education policy

John D'Agati, deputy commissioner of higher education

Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner for the Office of Instructional Support P-12

Renee Rider, associate commissioner school operations and management services

Ira Schwartz, associate commissioner for the Office of Accountability

Lissette Colon-Collins, assistant commissioner for the Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages

Leaving Nov. 15

Beth Berlin, interim commissioner and executive deputy commissioner

In addition

Kimberly Wilkins, assistant commissioner of innovation and school reform, moved to the post formerly occupied by Infante-Green, leaving her former post vacant.

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