When Jim Merrill, superintendent of schools in Virginia Beach, emerged as a candidate for the same post in Wake County, those who had worked with him during his rise through the ranks in Wake from 1984-2000 were enthusiastic. He was universally praised as a sound administrator with experience in the classroom and as a principal, and was reckoned to be a nice guy. Their support doubtless played a role in the school boards choice of Merrill as the next superintendent, starting August 1.
The appointment of Merrill, 62, was announced Tuesday. He began his career 40 years ago as an English teacher in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools and moved through the Wake County system, ultimately becoming associate superintendent. He was then and remains an affable fellow who smiles easily and speaks softly. In a public forum featuring three finalists, Merrill was at ease with all questions and thankfully kept his use of education jargon (an affliction of some veteran administrators) to a minimum.
He displayed then and in interviews with the board a familiarity with the issues in Wake County and managed to convey confidence without arrogance. Principals and others who have worked with him say he is a good listener not afraid to make decisions but supportive of subordinates.
The road to his appointment was winding and controversial. A Republican-majority board elected in 2009 blew up Wakes respected assignment plan, one which factored in economic diversity into placing students in schools in a way to avoid overloading some schools with disadvantaged children, something that has been clearly demonstrated to be a disadvantage to learning. The policy also guarded against schools lacking racial diversity.
The GOP majority, until it was toppled in 2011, also stirred rancor in the community and demonstrated an unwillingness to listen or to compromise, something that led to a Democratic takeover. Tony Tata, a retired Army one-star general hired as superintendent by the Republicans, did good work in trying to build connections in the community, but his inexperience and his disputes with the new board ultimately cost him the job. (Hes now Secretary of Transportation under Gov. Pat McCrory.)
Merrill has his work cut out for him. Hell be the face of a campaign for an $810 million school construction bond headed for a vote on Oct. 8, and hell be the one in charge of putting in a new student assignment plan similar to the one rejected by Republicans.
That Merrill knows the community well should be a tremendous asset in the bond campaign. Its hard to gauge at this point whether the turmoil in the system, and the tensions between the school board and Wake County commissioners, will put a much-needed bond issue in jeopardy. Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican and former Raleigh mayor, has been sharply critical of the school board and joint meetings between the two groups have been strained.
Merrill will report to the school board, but hed do well to meet with Coble and other commissioners to see if he can patch some fences there and encourage at least civility in the name of helping the children in Wake County schools now and in the future.
Two other candidates for superintendent, Ann Clark of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system and Dana Bedden of Texas, were impressive in their visits to Raleigh, and it speaks well of them, and of Merrill, that they did not hesitate to have their names made public when the choice was narrowed to three finalists.
In taking charge in Wake, Merrill assumes command of the states largest system, one that parents and residents like to believe is the best. Certainly the system, through its diversity-in-assignment system, gained national recognition, and parental satisfaction is solid. The foundation is strong, but Jim Merrill has much building ahead.