Three veteran educators will undergo perhaps the most important job interviews of their lives this week as they make their cases to become the next Wake County schools superintendent.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the three superintendent finalists will tour schools, meet school employees, attend a community forum and go through a round of final interviews with the school board. For board members, the next few days are an opportunity to see how the candidates react under the intense public spotlight as they seek to lead the state’s largest school system.
“We want to see their soft skills,” said school board Chairman Keith Sutton. “We want to see how they interact with the public.”
Last week, Sutton announced the board’s top choices: 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.
The national search to replace Tony Tata, who was fired in September, began with 23 applicants. On May 8, the board narrowed the field to four semi-finalists, all from a list of seven candidates recommended by search firm McPherson & Jacobson.
The board interviewed the semi-finalists May 14-15. Board members had aimed to narrow the field to two finalists. However, school board member Tom Benton said, the field of candidates was so strong that members chose three finalists.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to reach a consensus and whoever is chosen will be a strong superintendent,” Benton said.
Sutton said the semi-final interviews allowed them to learn more about the candidates’ technical skills. He said this week’s visits will allow them a clearer look at whether they’d be the right fit for the 150,000-student district.
For instance, Benton said, board members aren’t going on Tuesday’s school visits with the finalists. But, he said, board members will check afterward with those in attendance to see how the trio handled the experience.
Not since 1995 had the school board released the names of the finalists for superintendent. McPherson & Jacobson told the board that naming the finalists and having them meet with the public would make the process more transparent and lead to greater public support for the new superintendent.
“It should elevate everybody’s comfort level about who gets the job,” said Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group for public education.
The finalists are stepping into a school system where superintendents have come and gone rapidly.
After a Republican board majority took control, Del Burns resigned in February 2010, saying he could not, “in all good conscience, continue to serve as superintendent.” The board hired Tata in December 2010 in a partisan vote won by Republicans.
Democrats regained the board majority in 2011. Tata was fired Sept. 25 in another party-line vote, with Democrats prevailing.
Two finalists said they’re aware of the superintendent turnover issues in Wake.
“I want to see if I can be part of moving the district forward and providing some stability,” Bedden said in an interview. “I don’t want to add to the revolving cycle.”
Clark said in an interview she’s not naive about the partisan politics in Wake County but believes the solution is to “put the face of a kid, a teacher and a principal on each and every decision we make.”
A focus on kids will rally community support, and partisan politics can fall by the wayside when that happens, she said.
Merrill, a former Wake school administrator, declined to comment in advance of this week’s visit.
Charlotte Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report.