Education

What does everybody want in the next Wake County schools leader? A lot.

Jim Merrill, center, shakes hands with Wake County school board members after he was named superintendent in 2013. The school board is now looking for a replacement for Merrill, who will retire Feb. 1.
Jim Merrill, center, shakes hands with Wake County school board members after he was named superintendent in 2013. The school board is now looking for a replacement for Merrill, who will retire Feb. 1. tlong@newsobserver.com

The next superintendent of the Wake County school system should be a former teacher who values diversity, stands up to the state legislature and wants to stay in the job for several years.

Those were common themes in a recent survey completed by thousands of school staff, community members and students. Wake is searching for a new superintendent to replace Jim Merrill, who is retiring Feb. 1 after four years at the helm of North Carolina’s largest school system.

The survey asked participants what they want to see in a new leader, and respondents left more than 1,200 comments. Many said they want a superintendent who will push for more funding.

“We need someone who will fight for the funding that our schools deserve,” one survey-taker wrote. “Our state legislature and federal government are stripping our schools of (their) resources.”

Many community respondents said they were concerned about the size of the Wake system, which has about 160,000 students. A common suggestion was to break up the school system into smaller districts.

“Must be able to handle the size of the system and maybe even be a visionary for changing the size and splitting into four smaller school systems based on geographical area,” one commenter wrote.

Encouraging racial and cultural diversity was also a common theme. Respondents said they wanted a superintendent who would welcome a diverse staff and understand a multicultural student enrollment. Some said they would like the school board to hire a woman or minority.

“Part of what attracted me to Wake County was the ability to find high quality, diverse schools,” one community respondent wrote.

Staff members who took the survey said they want a superintendent who has experience as a teacher. The new leader should frequently visit schools and stay in the position for several years, they said.

“Please hire someone who will be with the school system for at least 10 years,” one staff respondent wrote. “We’ve had too many in my teaching career in this state.”

The last three superintendents in Wake County have all served for fewer than five years. Before Merrill, Tony Tata served as superintendent for two years until the school board fired him in 2012. Del Burns (who will return as interim superintendent on Feb. 1) led the district for four years until he resigned in 2010.

Here’s who took the survey: more than 1,500 community members, about 2,400 staff members of Wake schools, 75 students and 250 people who don’t have children in the school system.

(You can see all community responses here and all staff responses here.)

The survey will be used in the school board’s search for Merrill’s replacement.

Applications for the superintendent position are due Jan. 30. The board will likely interview seven to 10 candidates in March before narrowing the list to three finalists. A new superintendent could be named in early April and start the job July 1.

Pressley Baird: 919-829-8935, @pressleybaird

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