As homecomings go, this one was slightly delayed for James Merrill. He spent 16 years in a variety of administrative posts in the Wake County Schools in the 1980s and ‘90s, rising as high as associate superintendent. Once he became the top candidate earlier this month after a series of interviews and public events, it took another few weeks to iron out the contract details.
He says it was worth the wait.
“I have very positive memories of my time in Wake County,” said Merrill. “I think a lot of my educational philosophy and my sense of what’s right for kids came from my time in Wake County.”
The hiring is the latest major decision that has not come easily for the Wake School Board. It’s been a tumultuous last four years, including open hostility among members and two fired superintendents.
Merrill surely knows that. His salary will be $275,000 per year. But the delay in his hiring reportedly came because he wanted a contract that included a larger buyout, should he be let go.
Merrill was not forthcoming on what held up the negotiations.
“Well, we were still working on things,” he said.
When asked if he could elaborate, he said simply: “No.”
Merrill comes to Wake County after seven years leading the Virginia Beach Public Schools. He was just named Virginia superintendent of the year. But his Carolina roots run deep. In addition to his time in Wake County, Merrill also served as a superintendent in Alamance County, and was a teacher in Winston-Salem and a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill.
But those credentials did not make him a unanimous choice. Wake School Board member Deborah Prickett voted against Merrill’s hiring, saying she thought it was time to hire the first female leader in the district’s history.
Fellow Republican John Tedesco also voted against hiring Merrill, saying first he would have preferred to retain former superintendent Tony Tata, and then stating his preference for Ann Clark, a finalist for the job and associate superintendent from Charlotte/Mecklenburg Schools.
“At this point I’m deeply concerned that some have such a desire to turn to all they perceive what we once were in Wake that they are missing out on an opportunity to be all that we can become,” said Tedesco.
The discord among Board members was apparent from the beginning of the night, when Board Chair Keith Sutton made a rare and public admonishment of the unknown board member who leaked confidential information on the search to former Board Chair Ron Margiotta, who then spoke to several media members. Sutton even called for possible future censure or even removal from the Board if such leaks occur in the future.
“Certainly I think there needs to be some accountability and repercussions when someone breaches our confidentiality and the trust of the Board in that manner,” said Sutton.
This type of friction on the School Board is just one challenge Merrill will face. The district is about to undergo unprecedented change.
The State Legislature just passed a law that modifies the board voting districts, and is poised to pass another that will take control of school building construction and maintenance away from the School Board and hand it to the County Commissioners.
Hovering over it all is a nearly $900 million bond measure that will determine the future of the district. Voters will decide on that in October, just two months after James Merrill starts his new job.