CARY — Veteran career educators from North Carolina, Virginia and Texas are the three finalists vying to replace Tony Tata as superintendent of the Wake County school system.
Wake school leaders announced Tuesday that Dana Bedden, the superintendent of the Irving Independent School District in Texas, Ann Clark, the deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; and James Merrill, the superintendent of Virginia Beach, Va., City Schools are their top choices to lead the state’s largest school system.
The three will meet with the public at a forum scheduled for Tuesday. The board will interview them the next day with the final vote possibly coming during the June 4 meeting.
“They’re all capable of running the district,” said Wake school board Chairman Keith Sutton. “We’re just trying to find out who would be the best fit.”
Not since 1995 had the school board released the names of the finalists for superintendent. McPherson & Jacobson, the Nebraska-based search firm hired by the board, said that naming the finalists and having them meet with the public would make the process more transparent and lead to greater public support when the board makes its choice.
The school board reviewed 23 applications, ultimately choosing semi-finalists who were on a short list recommended by the search firm. The board interviewed the four semi-finalists last week.
“We found three very highly qualified candidates,” Sutton said. “It was tough to narrow down the list. We’d be happy to have any of them.”
School board members had ranked education experience as one of the top traits they wanted in the new superintendent. Tata was a retired U.S. Army general with limited public school education experience before he was hired by the former Republican board majority in December 2010.
Democratic board members had cited issues such as complaints about the now discarded choice assignment plan, long bus delays at the start of the school year and their worsening relations with Tata for firing him in September. But Republican board members charged the dismissal was political, noting that the board fired Tata without stated cause and gave him a $253,625 severance payment.
Tata is now state secretary of transportation.
A wealth of experience
Sutton, a Democrat, noted that all three finalists have many years of education experience, ranging from 19 to 40 years. He said the board was impressed by the breadth of their experience in areas from overseeing finance to academics.
School board member John Tedesco said the finalists are highly qualified. However, he wished the search had broadened the pool more to consider people with business experience.
“Obviously I felt better with our previous leadership,” said Tedesco, a Republican. “But of the three finalists we have, I think we have one or two gems out there who could do some good things for our community.”
Of the finalists, Merrill is the most familiar in Wake. He worked in Wake for 16 years, where he rose to become associate superintendent of administrative services, overseeing human resources and finances.
School board members Tom Benton and Kevin Hill, both retired Wake principals, worked with Merrill before he left in 2000 to become superintendent of Alamance-Burlington schools.
Bedden, who is facing a change in school board leadership in his Texas district, said Tuesday that he didn’t solicit the Wake position.
“I responded to a search firm’s request to apply because Wake County is an excellent school district and it is very appealing for my wife to return to the county where she grew up and went to school,” he said in the statement.
The board is hoping the new superintendent can start as soon as July. Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey will leave Wake to become superintendent of Randolph County schools on July 1.
The new superintendent will have a full plate leading the 150,000-student school system, including starting a new student assignment policy and helping rally community support for a fall school-construction bond referendum.
On Tuesday, the school board gave final approval to a revised student-assignment policy that includes goals of trying to minimize the concentrations of low-income and low-performing students at schools. The policy calls for balancing achievement, stability, proximity and operational efficiency in schools.
The Democratic board majority put diversity back as one of the goals of the assignment policy after the former Republican board majority eliminated it in favor of the choice plan that Tata helped devise.
The new policy leaves to assignment staff details such as which target percentages to use. The assignment plan would be put into effect for the 2014-15 school year.
The vote was 7-2 with Tedesco and board member Deborah Prickett, also a Republican, voting no.
“I still think the idea of busing students for test scores is a problem,” Tedesco said. “The devil is in the details.”
Also on Tuesday, the school board reviewed the details of a proposed $939.9 million school construction program that would build 16 new schools, renovate six schools and pay for other projects. The bulk of the funding would come from an $810 million school construction bond referendum that could appear on the Oct. 8 ballot.
The board reviewed a resolution that it will vote for on June 4 requesting that county commissioners fund the construction program.
Board members didn’t back a proposal from Democratic board member Jim Martin to include language in the resolution questioning having the commissioners take over control of school construction. A bill that passed the state Senate last week would allow the boards of commissioners of nine counties, including Wake, to take authority for school construction away from the school boards.
“I don’t believe the public is going to favorably vote for a bond if we don’t know the organization who will build it,” Martin said.
Staff researchers Brooke Cain and Peggy Neal contributed to this article.