Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill was named the 2017 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year on Thursday, marking the third time he’s won recognition as a state’s top school administrator.
The N.C. Association of School Administrators gave the award to Merrill, who was one of eight regional finalists for the honor, at a ceremony in Greensboro. Merrill will represent North Carolina in the national Superintendent of the Year competition.
Wake school board Chairman Tom Benton said it is a well-deserved honor for Merrill. Benton said Merrill, who was hired as Wake’s superintendent in June 2013, has brought stability back to the state’s largest school system.
“People have often forgotten that just three short years ago our system was struggling from a lack of direction,” Benton said in an interview Thursday. “We had something like four superintendents in seven years.
“So one of the tasks of the board was to find not just a visionary leader, but someone who could restore confidence. Dr. Merrill has done that.”
Merrill had replaced Superintendent Tony Tata after Tata’s contentious firing by the school board in September 2012.
Merrill was crowned 2005 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year when he was leading the Alamance-Burlington School System. He was named 2013 Virginia Superintendent of the Year when he was leading Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
In his application for this year’s award, Merrill stressed the importance of the district’s strategic plan, which calls for raising the high school graduation rate to 95 percent by 2020. It also calls for producing graduates ready for productive citizenship as well as higher education or a career.
“It is a very different way of thinking about centrally how we support our principals and our teachers,” Merrill said in a video for the state superintendent competition. “It’s a different way of what our classrooms should look like.”
Benton said the strategic plan has given the 159,000-student system a common language and a common direction to work on.
Merrill, 65, took his first job in education in 1973 as an English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools.
He relocated to Wake in 1984 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.
Merrill left Wake in 2000 to lead the Alamance-Burlington School System. He would return to Wake 13 years later.
The last time a Wake superintendent won the state honor was in 2004, when Bill McNeal went on to also win the national Superintendent of the Year honor. Benton said Merrill would be a good candidate to win the national award after having restored Wake’s national brand.
“The system is truly back on a strong track,” Benton said.