N&O: Wake County schools superintendent to retire

WCPSS Superintendent James Merrill

A longtime leader in North Carolina’s largest public school system is retiring.

The News & Observer reported late Tuesday that James Merrill, superintendent of Wake County Public School System, will step down in February.

Merrill’s news comes as a bit of a surprise. More than four years ago, Merrill stepped in during a rocky period for the district after the county school board fired former Superintendent Tony Tata, although he’s worked as an administrator in the system off and on since 1984.

He’s led the district during a particularly tumultuous time in Raleigh as well, serving as a strong district advocate this year while local school districts wrangled with state orders to chop class sizes.

From The N&O:

Merrill, 67, said he’s resigning Feb. 1 so he can begin his retirement. Merrill started as superintendent in 2013, going on to win the state superintendent of the year in 2016 and being named a finalist for national superintendent of the year.

“As you may expect, I have a whirlwind of emotions about this decision,” Merrill said at the school board meeting Tuesday. “I have enjoyed beyond measure, my 20-plus years serving the adults and children of Wake County.”

Merrill said he felt he’s leaving Wake at a time when “our schools are in a good place” despite the challenges being faced like growth, funding and legislative mandates. Merrill didn’t elaborate on why he’s retiring now, declining interview requests after reading a brief statement.

The announcement came the same night that the school board awarded Merrill a salary increase of $6,387 and a performance bonus of $6,239 based on his performance this past year.

School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the board would move to quickly fill the position, discussing next steps at its Dec. 5 meeting. Wake is the nation’s 15th largest school district with 160,000 students and would likely attract a number of applicants.

“We will be deliberate, but we will not be slow,” Johnson-Hostler said in an interview after the announcement.

Johnson-Hostler said that board members had no inkling that Merrill planned to retire when he gave them the news on Nov. 1. Under his contract he’s required to give at least 90 days notice before he retires.

“People deserve to retire,” Johnson-Hostler said. “I do think he’s leaving us in a good place.”

Merrill was hired as Wake’s superintendent in June 2013. He replaced Superintendent Tony Tata after Tata’s contentious firing by the school board in September 2012.

School board members praised Merrill’s time as superintendent, saying Tuesday he had brought needed stability to the district.

“Dr. Merrill came to this district at a time when we needed strong leadership and clarity and purpose,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “We needed strength and he provided that for us.”

Merrill took his first job in education in 1973 as an English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools.

He relocated to Wake in 1984 to become an assistant principal at Enloe High School. Over the next 16 years, he would rise through the ranks to become one of Superintendent Jim Surratt’s top lieutenants as associate superintendent for administration, which put him in charge of the budget and finances.

Merrill left Wake in 2000 to lead the Alamance-Burlington School System. He would return to Wake 13 years later helping with efforts such as developing a new strategic plan that calls for raising the graduation rate to 95 percent by 2020.

“We will continue to breathe life into that strategic plan as we move forward and recognize that the plan is our road map but not clearly the end of our destination,” Johnson-Hostler said.

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