Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The New Commish

It's a job that one has to be somewhat crazy to want. It's a political job. It's a job that forces you to hold hands with people who want each other's scalps. It's a very, very hard job.

Richard Mills held the job for 14 years, which is something of a miracle in retrospect. The men who followed him held it for two and three years, respectively.

MaryEllen Elia will be the first woman to hold the joint position of Commissioner of Education of the State of New York and President of the University of the State of New York. She will also, I believe, be the first commissioner since Ernest Cole in the 1940s to have roots in upstate New York—she taught in Amherst near Buffalo before moving to Tampa in 1986.

She seems to have done splendidly in the eighth largest public school system in the nation (206,000 students!), rising through the ranks to become superintendent of schools 10 years ago. And she was Superintendent of the Year in Florida and in the running for a national title when it all went south. Her board voted her out by a vote of 4 to 3. The NYTimes treats this ouster fairly cavalierly, but the Tampa Bay Times goes into far more detail. Was it a vendetta by members of the board? Was it a reaction to her backing specific people for board positions? A lack of transparency? Racism? Bullying? Was it about poor communication? Lack of respect? Favoritism?

I've served on enough boards to know that things can blow up for myriad reasons, some of which are completely unreasonable. I am happy to give the Superintendent of the Year the benefit of the doubt in this terribly difficult job—while watching her like a hawk for examples of the sketchy behavior noted in her board evaluations, per the Tampa paper. A commissioner of education, no matter what her reputation with teachers and the business community, will not last long if people start to believe she is biased, secretive, or governing by intimidation.

Elia's base pay as superintendent in Tampa was nearly $40K more than her NYS salary will be, but that loss is no doubt softened by the $1.1 million buyout of her contract.

Welcome back, MaryEllen. You've got serious kishkes, and I wish you luck.

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