Education

How long could it take Wake County to find a new school superintendent?

Jim Merrill, center, shakes hands with Wake County school board members including Kevin Hill, left, after Merrill was named the new Wake County Schools superintendent during a board meeting on June, 18, 2013. Merrill announced Tuesday that he’ll be retiring as Wake superintendent on Feb. 1, 2018.
Jim Merrill, center, shakes hands with Wake County school board members including Kevin Hill, left, after Merrill was named the new Wake County Schools superintendent during a board meeting on June, 18, 2013. Merrill announced Tuesday that he’ll be retiring as Wake superintendent on Feb. 1, 2018. tlong@newsobserver.com

The Wake County school system is unlikely to have a new superintendent before Jim Merrill steps down on Feb. 1.

July 1 is more likely.

School board members say they’ll move quickly to begin the search to find a successor for Merrill, who announced his retirement Tuesday. It normally takes four to six months to do a superintendent search so it’s reasonable to expect the new hire to be able to start by July, said Allison Schafer, director of policy and legal counsel for the N.C. School Boards Association.

“This is about the time of year when people will start looking and school boards will start looking for superintendents,” Schafer, who heads the NCSBA section that conducts superintendent searches, said in an interview Wednesday.

Schafer said the school board will have to decide whether it already has someone in mind for the job or wants to conduct a search. She said large districts like Wake, which is the 15th largest school system in the nation with 160,000 students, tend to do searches to find candidates who have experience as a superintendent.

School board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said Tuesday that the search process would begin in the upcoming weeks. She said that Wake would begin advertising for the position soon as well.

“We don’t want to leave our district in any instability of where we’re going next and what our leadership will look like,” Johnson-Hostler said.

Wake County school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler discusses being surprised by the retirement of Superintendent Jim Merrill and what's to find a successor.

The board would need to pick an interim superintendent if a successor can’t start by Feb. 1. Wake was led by interim superintendents after a divided board voted 5-4 to fire Superintendent Tony Tata in September 2012. The division extended into the search process with the board not filling the position until June 2013. Merrill started Aug. 1, 2013.

More than four years later, Merrill still enjoys strong support. On Tuesday, the school board gave Merrill a $6,387 raise, lifting his annual salary to more than $302,000. The board also awarded Merrill a $6,239 performance bonus.

Also Tuesday, the board awarded $1,500 one-time bonuses to 19 members of Merrill’s leadership team, totaling $28,500.

Merrill, 67, didn’t elaborate Tuesday on why he was departing now, other than to say that he was retiring. He’s been an educator since 1973, spending 20 years in Wake County over two different stints.

Board members were emotional Tuesday night as they talked about Merrill’s upcoming departure. Johnson-Hostler said board members had been surprised when Merrill notified them on Nov. 1 that he intended to retire.

“I can’t even begin to thank you for all that you’ve done for Wake County,” board member Roxie Cash said to Merrill. “There’s no words to say that.”

Board members praised Merrill’s work in helping to develop the district’s strategic plan, which calls for raising the graduation rate to 95 percent by 2020 and producing graduates who are productive citizens ready for college or work.

“You created a district for us in which our board can now continue on and be able to do the work that you planted that seed in with the strategic plan,” board member Kathy Hartenstine told Merrill. “It won’t stop. We won’t be forgetting where it started, and that it started with you.”

Merrill, who was named North Carolina superintendent of the year for the second time in November, also drew praise online from colleagues, including fellow superintendents and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

“Thank you @JamesMerrill13 for all the great work that you’ve done for @WCPSS,” Johnson tweeted Wednesday. “Congratulations on your retirement, and best of luck in the future!”

Johnson-Hostler said the board will look for a successor who can build on the foundation that Merrill has laid. The last search in 2013 drew 23 applicants.

“I’m sure it will be a popular position,” said Schafer of the School Boards Association.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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