CARY — Newly installed Wake County Schools Superintendent Dr. James Merrill said Thursday he was eager to start, but “scared to death.”
Wake schools veteran Merrill, 62, said the next few weeks are about adjustment, both his getting used to the school district again and working with financial staff to address changes in state education funding. But he also wanted to assure parents that he will stay out of the political fray and will address their transportation concerns.
Merrill, who held a press conference his first day on the job, is the third superintendent of the 150,000-student system in three years. Superintendent Del Burns resigned in protest in 2010 and his successor, Tony Tata, was fired in 2012 as control of the officially nonpartisan school board flipped between Republicans and Democrats.
Academic, not political
“I’m either naive, completely insensitive or I just don’t feel the political atmosphere,” Merrill said. “I am an academic leader. I’m not a political leader. As much as I might have to step into political arenas, that is not my comfort, that is not where I choose to go.”
Merrill said he can’t predict whether he will face political storms, but he plans to tend to his work in any case. He previously worked in Wake from 1984 until 2000 and was most recently the superintendent of Virginia Beach.
“I would rather be working with principals and teachers, talking with kids – that is what keeps me going,” he said.
During his first day, Merrill said, he spent time visiting year-round elementary and middle schools. The stops weren’t announced in advance.
“This was cold,” Merrill said, “I just showed up at these schools. I went to different parts of the schools. I watched the buses roll at dismissal, held the door for the stampede of students going to their buses.”
Merrill also said he conducted a Thursday morning meeting of system principals, assistant principals and central staff.
“I enjoyed that, saying ‘Hello’ to a few folks I remembered and meeting a lot of folks in newer positions,” he said.
Problems old and new
As he readjusts to his old school district, Merrill will face budding concerns and old controversies.
He said he plans to review the state’s recent budget with a financial team within the next two weeks to get a sense of its effects on Wake and how to handle its restraints while preserving resources and jobs.
And Merrill said parents should not be skittish over school transportation for their children. Tata spent his final month in office surrounded by growing distress and concern from school board members and parents over school bus arrival problems and student assignment.
“It will not be flawless on day one; an organization this big can’t hit 1,000 – that’s a baseball metaphor – can’t bat 1,000 on day one,” Merrill said. “There has got to be give and take on the first few days of school. But the transportation department is more optimistic about the opening this year.”
From 1984 to 2000, Merrill rose through the ranks in Wake County to become Superintendent Jim Surratt’s top lieutenant as associate superintendent for administration, in charge of the budget and finances. From 2000 to 2006, he was the superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington school system.
Merrill, who was elected superintendent by the school board in June, said coming back to Wake County makes him feel like a “hybrid” of an old-timer and the new guy.