RALEIGH — The three finalists for Wake County schools superintendent all described themselves Tuesday as the best choice to move the state’s largest school district past the partisan political divide that has split the community.
Two superintendents have either resigned in protest or been fired since 2010 as control of the officially nonpartisan school board has flipped back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. The three finalists to take the post next acknowledged the controversy in an evening forum at Memorial Auditorium at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh.
“It’s the task of the next superintendent to provide some healing and relationship-building to bring the community to rally behind the school system – that’s already a good system that can go back and be a great school system,” said Dana Bedden, superintendent of the 35,000-student Irving Independent School District located near Dallas, Texas.
Bedden, 46, portrayed himself as an energetic, high-technology leader with ties to the area through his father-in-law, the late George R. Greene, a former Raleigh civil rights attorney and Wake County Superior Court judge.
Meanwhile, James Merrill, 62, highlighted his 40 years as an educator and his 16 years working in Wake – from 1984 to 2000 – as reasons he could move the district forward. He said his return had reinforced how good Wake is and that he wants to highlight the good work being done in the schools.
“I’d love to come back and be part of an acknowledged great, great school system,” said Merrill, superintendent of the 70,000-student Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia. “Is there room for improvement? Always.”
The third finalist, 31-year educator Ann Clark, 55, noted that she is the only one of the group who has spent nearly all her working life in North Carolina. Clark said she is used to dealing with partisan politics in a divided community, in her role as deputy superintendent of the 141,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
Displaying her knowledge of current state and local issues, Clark said it would be her duty to speak out about concerns such as the state raising class sizes, reducing funding for teacher assistants and reducing eligibility for pre-kindergarten programs at the same time students are expected to be reading by the end of third grade.
“The reality is that there’s going to be politics in K-12 education,” she said. “I see my role as superintendent as being the blocker and tackler.”
The school board will hold private interviews with the finalists Wednesday. Board members hope by the end of Wednesday to be able to offer a contract to one of the finalists, with the official announcement coming Tuesday.
The forum capped a long day that began with visits by each finalist to several schools and later meetings with different groups of school employees.
Cheryl Stidham, principal of Stough Elementary in Raleigh, showed Bedden the school’s global studies theme.
Bedden talked with students in different classrooms as they finished projects about South Africa and Europe.
“One day, I’ll maybe get to go (to Europe),” Bedden told a fourth-grade class. “So I’ll ask you for advice.”
Bedden joked with school staff that his finance department in Irving keeps a stash of money on hand because he comes back from school visits with things he wants to add to help those schools.
“I thought he was great,” Stidham said after the tour. “He seemed really knowledgeable.”
‘We all want stability’
The finalists are stepping into a 150,000-student system which has had two superintendents and two interim chiefs in the past three years.
Del Burns resigned in 2010 after saying he couldn’t continue to serve as superintendent under the board’s former Republican majority. Tony Tata was fired in September by the board’s Democratic majority after less than 20 months as superintendent.
Larry Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said that school employees want a superintendent who can last for more than a few years.
“Over the last four years, there has been so much change,” he said. “We all want some stability here.”
Nilles said the group isn’t endorsing any of the finalists.
“It looks like they’ve all done solid work and could do a good job,” he said.
Citing the need to give notice to the current employer, school board Chairman Keith Sutton said he wants the new superintendent to start by August. He said he expects the board to name an acting superintendent next week to replace interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey, who starts his new job running the Randolph County school system on July 1.
The new superintendent will face a variety of issues from the outset, including helping build public support for an $810 million school construction bond referendum this fall, while dealing with legislation that is expected to turn construction authority over to the board of commissioners.
Other issues on the system’s agenda include dealing with potential state budget cuts and developing a new student assignment plan that includes diversity as a factor.
Agreement on quality
None of the questions at the forum concerned student assignment. Instead, the crowd of about 100 people focused on topics such as student discipline, the candidates’ experience with school-construction bond referendums, communicating with the public, helping non-magnet schools compete and working with other elected bodies.
The finalists disagreed little on the issues. For instance, they all agreed that police are arresting too many students for matters that should be handled by the schools.
“We’re hitting the police button way too fast,” Merrill said. “We’re talking about disciplining of children.”
Like her fellow finalists, Clark talked about the quality of Wake schools, even placing it above her home district.
“We need to put a stake in the sand here in Wake County and say that we’re going to be the best district in the nation,” she said. “You are the best district, the highest performing district in the state of North Carolina. It pains me to say that, representing the second-largest district in the state.”