Profile: MaryEllen Elia

A Leader Others Admire

By Liz Griffin/School Administrator, September 2015 

    MaryEllen Elia 

Driving into a puddle that was more like a pond, MaryEllen Elia, who was superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla., at the time, destroyed the engine of her car and the clothes of her two deputy superintendents who pushed the vehicle out of the water. But like great leaders in any field, she turned the harrowing scenario into a lesson worth sharing.

As she puts it: “It’s good to surround yourself with people who will go the extra mile [for] you.”

She’ll be applying that counsel anew in Albany, N.Y., as the recently appointed New York State education commissioner. She’s charged with oversight of museums, libraries, professional licensing and adult education, in addition to nearly 2.7 million K-12 students.

During the 10 years Elia ran a central Florida school system the geographic size of Rhode Island, she was responsible for more than 200,000 students, 28,000 employees and a $2.9 billion budget. Her first priority, upon taking the reins in 2005, was to create a college-going culture. She displayed what she calls a “persistence of purpose,” introducing successive systemic reforms that worked together to lift student and teacher performance.

“Success in a district this size, or any size for that matter, does not occur overnight,” Elia says. “There is still work to be done. I believe I leave a legacy of continuous improvement.”

School board member Dorothy Edgecomb says Elia raised expectations for everyone tied to the schools. “She not only opened up the opportunity for Hispanic and African-American students [to take more Advanced Placement classes], she also supported students.”

Today, 30 percent of graduating seniors have received AP credit and the number of minority students taking AP classes has risen significantly.

At 66, Elia gained national attention as a forward-thinking leader with a deep understanding of systemic change, accountability and performance evaluation. She inspires others to go beyond the status quo. Earlier this year, she received the National Women in School Leadership Award from AASA and was named one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year.

“Others look to her for advice and counsel,” says Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of School Superintendents and a state senator. “She’s exceptionally knowledgeable and skilled — a superintendent’s superintendent who never lost touch with those in small districts.”

One of Elia’s biggest achievements is winning a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp teacher and principal evaluation systems.

Elia worked with the Hillsborough teachers’ union to achieve gains on both sides of the labor-management line. Teachers there now follow an evaluation system in which 40 percent of ratings are based on student growth on state and local tests. They receive performance reports that are reviewed by teachers they have a say in selecting.

“It is a testament to MaryEllen’s leadership, not only for winning such a large grant but for successfully implementing new evaluation and accountability programs in a district as large as Hillsborough,” says Kathleen Shanahan, former chair of the Florida State Board of Education.

Despite her record of substantive progress on deeply entrenched issues, the Hillsborough board, in a move viewed by many as bewildering, terminated her in a 4-3 vote without cause last January. Business and political leaders responded with dismay. Elia accepted the board’s decision and maintained a positive attitude about what would come next.

Montford wasn’t surprised by Elia’s resiliency and career move upward. “MaryEllen is a true professional and a team player. She is a rarity, not just as a superintendent, but as a person.”

Liz Griffin
is managing editor of School Administrator. E-mail: 



CURRENTLY: New York state education commissioner, Albany, N.Y.

PREVIOUSLY: superintendent, Hillsborough County Public Schools, Tampa, Fla.

GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER: Beth Shields, who offered me job opportunities as she advanced in her career from principal to deputy superintendent

BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY: Attending graduations for our 27 high schools

BOOK AT BEDSIDE: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

BIGGEST BLOOPER: While driving to an event during a torrential rainstorm, I drove into standing water not realizing it was several feet deep. My car stalled and I was stuck. My two deputy superintendents pushed my car out of the enormous puddle.

WHY I’M AN AASA MEMBER: I find that the support, insight and counsel of fellow school administrators through AASA is tremendously valuable.