Jim Merrill includes in his honors being named North Carolina’s school superintendent of the year, and that’s no surprise to those who recruited him for Wake County. He became Wake’s superintendent in August of 2013. Now, the 67-year-old Merrill, who spent more than 20 years in Wake in a couple of different jobs in separate stints, is retiring, and the county school board faces a daunting task indeed.
Merrill’s done a great job by any measure, of course, leading the efforts to develop a sound plan for the district’s future and maintaining the excellent reputation of the state’s largest school district, with more than 160,000 students. Wake’s also the 15th largest district in the United States, and it’s looked to by other districts that like its emphasis on student progress and efficiency.
The only negative about Merrill’s tenure is in a way a positive comment on his competence: It was too short. Picking a superintendent is a tough job, to be sure, particularly at a time when Republicans in control on Jones Street are skeptical of public education and with their emphasis on charter school expansion and growing a voucher program that drains money from mainstream public schools to, of all things, provide funds for parents to send their kids to private schools.
Wake needs in its next superintendent experience and political savvy, though first and foremost there must be a commitment to that classroom education of all children, a belief that all children can learn and that a school system has to stay true to that belief.
School board members might, in this choice, look for a leader who might be inclined to stay seven or eight years, which would give the new superintendent time to implement some of Merrill’s long-range planning and to formulate some plans of the successor’s own. That said, tenures in these high-pressure jobs tend to be relatively brief nationwide.
That successor has one tremendous advantage: following a successful superintendent and inheriting a system on solid ground.