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.
“It is really exciting and an honor to be able to return to Wake County as superintendent,” said Merrill, 62, after the vote.
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 his goals would be in Wake.
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The vote was 7-2 with 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 think Ann Clark would have been the person to bring us forward and maybe accomplish some of our achievement goals,” Prickett said.
Tedesco said he felt that Clark would have united the board and the community and that board members who wanted Merrill were looking to the district’s past rather than the future.
School board Chairman Keith Sutton 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.
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. Merrill’s predecessor, Tony Tata, was paid $250,000 annually. Sutton said the increase reflected Merrill’s prior experience as a superintendent.
Tata was fired in September by the board’s Democratic majority. Republican board members charged the firing was politically motivated while Democratic board members cited issues such as worsening relations with Tata, problems with school transportation and the now-discarded choice-based student assignment plan.
Both Merrill and Tata grew up in Virginia Beach. But each took a different career path before being named superintendent of the 150,000-student school system.
Tata served in the U.S. Army for 28 years, retiring as a brigadier general. He took a foundation’s training program in how to become a superintendent and had been chief operating officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools for 18 months when the board’s former Republican majority hired him.
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 as an educator, starting as a 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 sense and what’s right for children came from my time here.”
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.
Burns resigned in 2010, saying he couldn’t serve under the new Republican board majority. The board was then led for several months by an interim chief. Tata was hired in December 2010 with votes only from the Republican members.
Democrats regained the board majority after the 2011 election, leading to several tense months with Tata before his dismissal. Two interim superintendents have led Wake during the latest search.
Merrill 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 lines 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.