Wake County’s next school superintendent started out in the same place as his predecessor, but he took a different path toward becoming chief of North Carolina’s largest school system.
The former Republican school board majority wanted a nontraditional superintendent when they hired Tony Tata in 2010. A retired Army general, Tata had public education experience consisting of a training program for would-be superintendents and 20 months as an administrator in the Washington, D.C., schools.
The Democratic board majority that fired Tata in 2012 went the opposite direction last week in hiring Jim Merrill. He is a 40-year educator who once worked in Wake and spent the last 13 years running two smaller school systems.
Both Tata and Merrill grew up in Virginia Beach, where Merrill is currently superintendent.
“In the end, the board chose him for his experience and his longevity in two other systems,” said board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat. “We need stability. He brings a great deal of experience. Experience is needed right now in Wake County.”
That experience will come into play as Merrill deals with everything from making school buses run on schedule to managing a $1.3 billion budget and rounding up public support for an $810 million school construction bond referendum. He’ll be implementing a new student assignment plan and compensating for state budget cuts as he navigates through school board politics.
Merrill, 62, said he’s not walking blindly into the challenges he’ll face when he starts work Aug. 1 as Wake’s third superintendent since 2010.
“There is no school system that doesn’t have problems, whether they be political or academic,” Merrill said. “No school system is perfect. There are always going to be challenges. If I was going to hold out for a flawless system, I’d always be waiting. Experienced superintendents know that.”
Change of plans
But becoming a superintendent, or even an educator, wasn’t always in his plans.
Merrill spent his early years working in the country clubs that his father managed. The family eventually settled in New Hampshire, running a 200-year-old inn.
Merrill said he felt fortunate to receive a Morehead scholarship from UNC-Chapel Hill, which covered the college costs his family couldn’t afford.
His career plans were up in the air until he ran into Sterling Hennis, a UNC English professor, who suggested he consider becoming an English teacher. Merrill said it made sense, considering how he enjoys literature.
“He’s a great guy,” Hennis, who is now retired, said of Merrill. “He deserves the job.”
Merrill took his first job in 1973 as an English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools.
The career move that would shape his future and help lead to his new job came in 1984, when Merrill relocated to Wake to become an assistant principal at Enloe High School. Over the next 16 years, he would rise through the ranks to become one of Superintendent Jim Surratt’s top lieutenants as associate superintendent for administration, which put him in charge of the budget and finances.
School board member Tom Benton, a Democrat, was a principal during Merrill’s time in Wake.
“I’ve always found him to be a highly intelligent person who can cut to the meat of an issue,” Benton said. “You always know where he stands.”
Merrill said his time in Wake taught him about the need to adapt to change. That included taking the chance in 2000 to leave Wake to become superintendent of the much smaller Alamance-Burlington school system.
During his time in Burlington, he first began thinking about being superintendent in Wake. He went on to become North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2005 before taking his current job as Virginia Beach superintendent in 2006.
He picked up his second statewide award as top superintendent last year in Virginia.
“He’s been a superintendent of the year,” said school board chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat. “Clearly he knows how to be innovative and on the cutting edge.”
For both of his last two jobs, Merrill said he was recruited to apply. But when the Wake job became open after Tata was fired in September, Merrill said he jumped at the chance to become a candidate.
Aside from the professional opportunities, there are personal ones as well for Merrill, whose wife and stepson live in Alamance County. Merrill said he’s looking forward to being able to rejoin his family.
Board opts for experience
The Wake board made education experience a top priority, picking three career educators as finalists. But the choice came down to Merrill or Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. After a 5-4 vote in closed session, two of the board members switched to Merrill during the public vote.
Board members Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco, both Republicans, publicly voted against Merrill, saying they felt that Clark was the better choice. Tedesco said he was concerned that his colleagues were looking to the past in hiring Merrill.
Benton said the difference was that while Clark could become a good superintendent, he knew that Merrill already is a good one.
“The way I looked at is we had strong, stronger and strongest,” Benton said. “Regrettably, not everybody felt the same way about who was the strongest.”
Benton also disputes the idea that hiring Merrill means Wake is looking back to the past. Benton said Merrill has grown since he left for the Burlington job in 2000.
Merrill also believes he’d be better superintendent in Wake now than he would have been back then. He said the past 13 years as a superintendent have given him valuable experience.
“I’m a little calmer now about issues,” Merrill said. “I try to approach issues with a more measured approach.”
First priority is listening
Merrill isn’t starting with a list of new programs he intends to launch. Both he and school board members say they expect him to come in and listen to what the community wants.
“I don’t travel around with a bag of tricks that I pull out and say, ‘This is the answer to the problem,’ ” Merrill said.
Sutton said there will be a board-superintendent retreat within Merrill’s first 60 days to begin developing a plan that sets goals and objectives for his first year.
Sutton said one of the things that Merrill will work on is a new strategic plan. He said that they’ll keep elements of the plan that Tata developed while looking at what new features might be added.
Merrill’s signature program in Virginia Beach was the Compass to 2015 strategic plan. It talks about having 95 percent of students graduating by 2015 and lists the skills they’ll need to succeed.
Although the specifics might not be used, Sutton said Wake school leaders will look at emulating how Merrill got community input in developing the plan.
One area where Merrill won’t have the luxury of waiting is the bond referendum expected to be on the Oct. 8 ballot.
“It’s about telling a story and how we communicate to the community the importance of the bond,” Sutton said. “He’ll be the face of the system and the face of the bond.”
The outcome of the bond could affect the rest of Merrill’s tenure. Defeat of the bond would force him to come up with an alternative way to deal with Wake’s growth.
Merrill is hoping to end his career on a high note. He says he envisions Wake to be his final superintendent’s position. But he’s not looking to leave anytime soon. He’s under contract through June 2017.
“I feel young,” Merrill said. “I’m not about to quit for a long time. I’m not a short-timer.”