Wake hires Jim Merrill as schools superintendent

khui@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2013 

  • Jim Merrill

    Age: 62

    Hometown: Virginia Beach, Va.

    Current position: Superintendent of the 70,000-student Virginia Beach, Va., City Public Schools since 2006.

    Current salary: $220,644

    Other jobs: Merrill started in 1973 as an English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system. He was hired by Wake in 1984 to be an assistant principal at Enloe High School in Raleigh. He moved to the central office in 1986 to become a personnel director. He was named assistant superintendent for human resources in 1990. He became associate superintendent for administration in 1996, overseeing Wake’s budget and payroll, personnel, purchasing and data processing. He left Wake in 2000 to become superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System.

    Education: Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he received a bachelor’s degree in secondary English; master’s degree in educational administration from Appalachian State University, Boone; doctoral degree from UNC-Greensboro.

    Family: Wife, Elizabeth; son, Barrett

— The Wake County school board on Tuesday hired Jim Merrill as its next superintendent, bringing back a veteran educator who was once one of the school system’s top leaders.

Merrill edged out Ann Clark, deputy superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, for the job of leading North Carolina’s largest school system. While Merrill is superintendent of the 70,000-student Virginia Beach City Public Schools, he worked in Wake from 1984 to 2000 as one of former Superintendent Jim Surratt’s top lieutenants.

Merrill, 62, said it was an “honor” to return.

“Wake County’s had a long legacy of extremely strong student achievement,” Merrill said. “A community that supports schools … and a reputation that’s known both state and nationally for being out in front and making good decisions and for folks wanting to follow what Wake County does.”

Merrill will start in Wake on Aug. 1. He said he planned to visit schools and meet with groups to reacquaint himself with the district. He said it would be “presumptuous” at this point to say what changes he would make in Wake.

Merrill’s hiring can be seen as a return to the school system’s status – a Democratic-backed panel with a veteran educator at the helm – before Republicans swept into power in 2009 on the strength of voter dissatisfaction with busing for diversity and frequent reassignments.

The Democratic-backed board elected in 2011 on Tuesday replaced the Republican’s hire, former Superintendent Tony Tata, who entered the education field after a career in the military, with an educator with 40 years of experience.

The vote was 7-2 with Republican board members Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco dissenting. Both said they felt Clark would have been a better choice but added they would work with Merrill.

“I am deeply concerned that some have such a strong desire to turn to all they perceive we once were in Wake that they are missing out on an opportunity to be all that we can become,” Tedesco said.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, argued that Merrill’s more than 13 years of experience as a superintendent and history of winning awards showed that he could move Wake forward.

“You don’t get superintendent-of-the-year awards in two states by resting on your laurels,” Sutton said.

The school board had picked Merrill, Clark and Dana Bedden, superintendent of the 35,000-student Irving Independent School District in Texas, as the three finalists.

After two days of schools visits, interviews and meetings with the public, the board had agreed behind closed doors on May 29 to enter into contract negotiations with Merrill.

The board was scheduled to hire a new superintendent on June 4 but the vote was delayed. Board members would not discuss what happened during the meeting , but former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta said that people who were aware of the discussions told him that Merrill was the 5-4 choice with Clark as the runner-up.

Sutton said Tuesday he was “very disappointed” with the “breach of confidentiality” from the board.

“That breach of confidentiality is something I take very seriously and something that the board should take seriously,” he said.

Sutton said he’s asking the board’s policy committee and legal counsel to look at the district’s ethics policy to see whether they can take steps such as a public censure, public reprimand or a fine against board members who release confidential information.

Margiotta says he didn’t get his information from board members.

$275,000 salary

The June 4 vote was pulled from the agenda amid questions about Merrill’s contract.

Sutton said Merrill will be paid $275,000 a year on a contract that runs through June 2017. However, a copy of the contract was not made available Tuesday night. Tata, who was fired in September, was paid $250,000 annually. Sutton said the increase reflected Merrill’s prior experience as a superintendent.

Tata was on the job for less than 20 months, receiving a $253,625 severance package. He’s now state secretary of transportation.

A career educator returns

Democratic board members said they wanted an educator to replace Tata.

In Merrill, they got a person who has spent his entire career in public education, starting as an English teacher in 1973.

Merrill came to Wake as an assistant principal in 1984.

By the time he left in 2000, he was the associate superintendent of administration, in charge of budget and personnel. His wife and son live in North Carolina.

“I have very positive memories from my time in Wake County,” Merrill said.

“A lot of my educational philosophy and my sense of what’s right for kids came from my years in Wake County.”

Merrill went on to lead the Alamance-Burlington School System, being named North Carolina superintendent of the year in 2005. He took his current job in Virginia Beach in 2006, and was named Virginia Superintendent of the Year last year.

Margiotta said that Merrill had applied for the Wake job in 2006 when it was given to Del Burns.

During his tenure in Virginia Beach, Merrill has received national attention for the district’s “Compass to 2015” plan, which calls for 95 percent of students to graduate by 2015 with needed skills.

Merrill has appeared twice on the NBC Education Nation Summit, where participants talk about how to improve education.

Merrill will be Wake’s third superintendent since 2010, but he should have less worry about a board shakeup for at least the next three years.

Under a bill that became state law last week, the terms of the five Democratic-backed members elected in 2011 were extended a year to 2016.

This means the current majority should stay intact until new district boundaries go into effect in 2016.

Full plate for new hire

Wake had 56,000 fewer students when Merrill last worked in the district. But some issues, particularly growth, remain the same.

The school board has asked for an $810 million school construction bond to be put on the Oct. 8 ballot.

The bond issue would fund the bulk of a $983.8 million school construction program to build 16 schools, fully renovate six schools, start renovations on three schools, and take on other projects.

One of Merrill’s jobs will be trying to explain to the public why the bond is needed.

Another issue that remains current 13 years after Merrill last served is student assignment.

Merrill will be in charge of putting in place a new student assignment plan that takes into account recently approved school-board policy changes that make diversity a factor in assignments.

Merrill also will try to lead the district as it deals with expected state funding cuts and legislation that would transfer the school system’s control over school construction to the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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