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Betty A. Rosa steps up to fill challenging education role

Interim state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa in 2019.

Interim state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa in 2019. Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

When the state Board of Regents announced Tuesday that Betty Rosa had been named interim state education commissioner and resigned her post as chancellor, it made publicly clear something state education officials and advocates have known for years.

The job of New York’s commissioner of education is a very tough one to do. And that has made it an increasingly tough post to fill.

Rosa becomes the fourth commissioner in just more than a year: MaryEllen Elia, the most recent permanent commissioner, left a year ago. Executive deputy commissioner Beth Berlin was named acting commissioner, and when she left the department in November, acting special counsel Shannon Tahoe got the interim nod. Last month, Tahoe announced that Thursday would be her last day, and with the commissioner search having netted 38 applicants and a handful of finalists but no hire, Rosa took the job after considerable persuasion by fellow Regents.

Reflecting on the situation, Long Island Regent Roger Tilles recalled that the search that netted Elia and the one before that, that led to the hiring of David Steiner, also had been quite difficult. In between those two came John King, who was promoted internally when Steiner left amid a controversy about the education reforms he tried to enact.

“I think it was clear when we went out on the search last summer that it would take time,” Tilles said. “And then you got the pandemic and the threat of budget cuts and the total uncertainty of education everywhere. It’s a very tough time for someone to make this kind of transition.”

Top educators also know that coming to New York means dealing with a powerful teachers union, and a complex and heated political environment surrounding schools. 

“In the search that helped us find Elia, the education situation here was so chaotic with the argument over Common Core and teacher evaluations,” Tilles said, “that we were very lucky to get her. And now I think Betty Rosa is the best possible person for the job, for as long as she will do it. She’s an educator who knows the politics and the players, and I’m very glad she’s agreed to take on the role.”

So who will be the chancellor? No one, at the moment. Vice chancellor Andrew Brown will become presiding officer, running the meetings, but Brown is also the president-elect of the New York Bar Association, slated to fill that post starting in June, and it’s not clear he could or would do both. 

Tilles, who in his 16th year is by far the longest-serving Regent, says he does not know who will get the position. Asked whether he wants it, he is noncommittal.

The search for a permanent commissioner is “continuing,” according to the Education Department, and has a closing date now of Oct. 2. But Tilles says he does not see how a commissioner will be chosen before the end of the year. 

Rosa will face an extraordinary test as she tries to steer the state’s schools through the same challenges that make the job so hard to fill permanently: a pandemic, reopening schools, threatened budget cuts and a politically mad culture. 

But as Tilles pointed out, those were the same challenges she was charged with navigating before she switched roles. 

Monday she was a chancellor without a commissioner. Now she’s a commissioner without a chancellor.