July/August Issue
June 30, 2015

New commissioner: I'll listen to educators

Author: By Sylvia Saunders

Mary Ellen EliaState Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia officially starts her new position July 6 — but just one day after her May 26 appointment, she was featured on a capital radio show and visited classrooms at Pine Hills Elementary School in Albany.

She pledged to listen to educators and parents. "The reason that kids will be successful in school is because of the teachers," Elia told reporters. "And we need to make sure they have all the support they need."

A native of Western New York, Elia served as superintendent in Hillsborough County, Florida, since 2005, where she is credited with partnering with teachers to raise standards, develop a comprehensive evaluation system and raise student achievement. Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, is the nation's eighth largest school district with 206,000 students, 30,000 employees and a $2.9 billion budget.

Elia began her career in education in 1970 as a social studies teacher in the Sweet Home Central School District and taught for 19 years before moving on to administrative positions. Her appointment comes after a nearly five-month search by the Board of Regents to replace former Commissioner John King, who left SED at the end of 2014 to take a senior-level job with the U.S. Department of Education. Elia earned degrees from Buffalo State college and the University of Buffalo.

While it's too soon to form an opinion of the new commissioner, NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, the union's liaison with the department, noted that union leaders who worked with her in Florida said Elia tried to ensure that teachers felt respected and that their voice was always part of any debates.

"We welcome that kind of attitude here," Fortino said. "To be successful in New York, collaboration with practitioners is essential."