On paper, Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent James Merrill looks like the strongest candidate to become the next Wake County schools chief.
Merrill has more experience than the other two finalists, has won superintendent of the year awards from two states and received national recognition. He also worked in Wake County for 16 years.
But Wake County school board members say all three finalists are strong candidates who will get equal consideration when they meet the public next week and go through a round of interviews. The other finalists to lead the state’s largest school district are Dana Bedden, superintendent of the Irving Independent School District in Texas; and Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
“I would be happy with any of the three becoming superintendent,” said school board member Tom Benton.
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Clark and Merrill were not available for comment Wednesday.
Merrill came to Wake in 1984 as an assistant principal. When he left in 2000 to become superintendent of Alamance-Burlington Schools, he was in charge of Wake finances, budget and human resources as associate superintendent for administration.
Benton, a retired Wake principal, can recall lobbying Merrill to get extra funding and extra staff at his schools.
“I always felt confident that if I presented a fair case he would listen,” he said.
Merrill, who still has family in Wake, was named North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2005. He became superintendent of the 70,000-student Virginia Beach school system in 2006 and last year was named Virginia Superintendent of the Year.
“He has experience in the system, so he’s familiar with it,” said Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit education advocacy group. “Yet he’s been away long enough to have two superintendent of the year awards from different states. That’s unique.”
Merrill has received national attention for Virginia Beach’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 Education Summit, where participants talk about how they can improve education.
“We’re pretty proud of what he’s done,” said Dan Edwards chairman of the Virginia Beach school board. “His resume pretty well speaks for itself.”
Merrill’s tenure has also been noted for fights with the Virginia Beach City Council over school funding.
In 2010, Merrill used an alert system normally reserved for events such as lockdowns and weather delays to tell parents that the City Council was about to take away money from the school system that would lead to “painful cuts.”
Edwards said that Merrill has been recruited by a number of other school systems over the years, including those larger than the 150,000-student Wake County school system.
She covers many bases
Ann Clark is the only finalist who has never been a superintendent. But as deputy superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, she’s the no. 2 person in a 141,000-student district that has nearly as many students as Wake.
Wake school board chairman Keith Sutton said that while Clark hasn’t been a superintendent, she has overseen an $850 million budget, worked in a wide range of areas in Charlotte, worked on the district’s school bond construction programs and has been one of the district’s spokeswomen.
Simmons said that one part of Clark’s resume that will be noticed is that she graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that trains noneducators to work in school districts.
Former Superintendent Tony Tata, who was fired in September by the Democratic school board majority, was a Broad graduate. Sutton noted that Clark is a career educator who attended Broad as a professional development opportunity.
Clark was one of three Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent finalists in 2012, but Heath Morrison was hired instead.
CMS board member Eric Davis said Clark has made her aspirations to lead a district clear.
“You will not find another person more committed with her heart, soul and mind to improving the education of students in North Carolina,” Davis said.
No stranger to debate
Of the finalists, Dana Bedden has no experience with North Carolina’s public schools. He worked in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming superintendent of the 35,000-student Irving Independent School District in Texas in 2010.
But Bedden says his experience in Irving shows he can also lead Wake, too. He points to increases in test scores, greater community and parental involvement in schools, and raises for teachers during the recession.
“Every decision I’ve made is based on how we can make our children successful,” he said.
But Bedden could be forced out as superintendent, as the most recent election has left his critics holding six of the seven board seats. Bedden has clashed with some board members about having replaced a staff-developed curriculum with a third-party curriculum and for expanding a program that allows Spanish-speaking students to take some of their classes in their native language.
Former Irving school board members Gwen Craig and Rose Huffstetler both charge that the real problem isn’t Bedden’s job performance. They say he’s in danger of being fired from Irving, a city outside of Dallas, because of his race.
“Irving is a white community and we have an African-American man,” Craig said. “They’ve never given him a chance.”
Bedden declined to say if he felt the problems are racially motivated, saying he’s doing his best to work with his board.
Steven Jones, president of the Irving board and a longtime critic of Bedden, did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Sutton said he doesn’t think the controversy in Irving will hurt Bedden’s chances.
“He’s been a superintendent with three different districts, so we know he’s capable, he’s experienced,” Sutton said.
Bedden said he wasn’t looking for the Wake job but was recruited by the board’s search firm. He noted that his wife grew up in Wake and his son now attends UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s one of the best districts in the country,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to bring my family home. It’s a win-win situation.”
Charlotte Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report.