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 a successor to ex-schools chancellor John King.
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 Eliaas 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 considered it a plus that Elias has experience as a public lightning rod.