ALBANY -- A former Florida schools official, who voiced strong support for embattled teachers, was appointed Tuesday as New York State's new education commissioner.
The state Board of Regents voted to hire MaryEllen Elia, a New York native who most recently ran Tampa, Florida-area schools for 10 years before being fired in January, to the $250,000-a-year job.
Elia, 66, who officially takes over the job July 6, becomes New York's first female education commissioner. She replaces John B. King Jr., who left last year to take a federal job after a rocky rollout of the Common Core academic standards and curriculum.
Elia, talking with the media after the Regents' vote, said she supported raising academic standards. But she added she understood why some teachers, whose evaluations now are tied to students' scores on standardized tests, feel under attack.
"It doesn't mean we don't have accountability," Elia said. "But, right now, what we have to do is change the negative stance to a positive approach . . . to shift the conversation from 'What do we need to do to get rid of teachers?' but 'What can we do to support teachers?' "
She acknowledged that "opting out" of standardized tests has become a huge education issue but said "communication is a key" to helping parents understand why higher academic standards are desired. She didn't offer any immediate strategies about addressing the growing number of New York students boycotting Common Core tests.
Elia was born in suburban Rochester and raised in Niagara County. She earned a bachelor's degree from Daemen College in Erie County, and master's degrees at both the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College. Her first job was teaching social studies in an Erie County school district. She moved to Florida in 1986, switching later to academic administration.
For the last 10 years Elia was Hillsborough County schools superintendent, a 200,000-student school system that includes the city of Tampa. She won many accolades there but eventually was forced out.
Elia was the 2015 Florida "superintendent of the year" and one of four finalists for the national superintendent of the year. But earlier this year the school board fired her after a hotly contested 4-3 vote. Tampa media reports said the issue centered on unrest with district staff and some parents' dissatisfaction with education for special-needs students.
Elia touched lightly on her Florida departure when pressed by reporters.
"The average [professional] life of a superintendent is between three and four years. So I had 10 years," Elia said. "The board that put me in wasn't the same board. . . . There are multiple changes going on in the education world, and, in that context, I'm moving forward and not dwelling on the past."
Asked about the complaints by some that Hillsborough shortchanged special-needs students, Elia said: "I don't really believe that is a fair statement," noting that her son is blind and that she understands parents' and students' needs.
Regents said they conducted a nationwide search, began with 50 candidates, interviewed seven, but ultimately considered only Elia.
"She stood out in our judgment," said Regents Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar of Syracuse. "Her record of achievement in a school district that's very diverse, very complicated . . . her candor, her forthrightness."